PA conference reflects generational change

Photo of International Conference on Precision Agriculture trade show

A trade show with more than 100 exhibitors supported the International Conference on Precision Agriculture.

PHOTO: Emma Leonard

A central theme at the 13th International Conference on Precision Agriculture was data collection moving from on-farm and machine sensors to satellite platforms

Precision agriculture research appears to be in a consolidation phase that is allowing data management to catch up with data collection.

Whereas at past gatherings there have been multiple papers on agricultural robots and new sensors, presenters at this year’s International Conference on Precision Agriculture (ICPA), in St Louis, were mostly focused on data platforms, data sharing and data integration.

With no machine-mounted sensors on display and few presentations discussing these technologies, it was also clear that data collection is now moving to aerial and satellite platforms.

However, one key message remained the same. Irrespective of the collection platform, the sensors still need to be validated and the data ground-truthed.

The use of LiDAR (a laser-based system) to measure canopy height and infer biomass was popular with several researchers, including Mark Trotter from the University of New England. His research group has combined LiDAR and crop greenness data (normalised differentiation vegetation index) to accurately estimate pasture biomass.

The potential for hyperspectral imagery in commercial uses was also presented. Ian Yule, from Massey University in New Zealand, used hyperspectral imagery to identify 11 different grass species with 96 per cent accuracy, and accurately identified nutrient deficiency in pastures for sulfur, phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen. This is considered an exciting development for spatial nutrient management.

Francelino Rodrigues, from the International Maize and Improvement Center in Mexico, reported on the use of hyperspectral imagery to map wheat protein in a maturing crop.

Data integration

Integration of data from multiple sensors was also covered. David Whattoff from SOYL Precision Farming UK discussed success in combining electromagnetic data with bulk density and soil moisture data to create variable-depth tillage zones.

Yonglin Cho from the University of Missouri used a combination of optical, near infrared and electromagnetic sensors to map soil properties (moisture, texture, bulk density and soil carbon) to 0.9 metres.

However, the big buzz around data integration was in relation to the rapid expansion of commercial data services. The Weather Company was cited as an example. Now owned by IBM, the Weather Company has 50 years of experience in collating, modelling and delivering weather services. In addition to using 162 models, the company collects weather data from commercial aircraft as they fly around the globe. It also streams from 200,000 personal weather stations and from its weather app, Weather Underground.

If users of the app accept the location option, and about 15 million users have, their phones provide local atmospheric pressure data. Combining these data sources with IBM’s interest in artificial intelligence opens the door to considerably improved forecast accuracy and decision support. Potentially, growers will go from looking at a weather map, to looking at maps of ideal spray conditions or disease-promoting conditions by crop type.

Collection platforms

While there was little promotion of machine-mounted (proximal) sensors, there was plenty of talk about aerial (unmanned or manned) and satellite data collection systems.

With the WorldView 3 satellite now able to deliver imagery at 30 centimetres’ resolution it was felt the unmanned aerial vehicle market would be superseded in the area of image acquisition. With a growing number of satellite passes each week, cloud and turnaround times are becoming less of an issue, and some feel artificial intelligence may soon be able to process out cloud cover.

Several presenters spoke of the importance of educating markets and legislators to realise the benefits that precision agriculture tools can bring to productivity and the environment by targeting inputs and reducing harvest losses.

The farming sector was encouraged to look at what other industries have developed, and to use and improve these platforms, software and systems for agricultural solutions. 

More information:

Emma Leonard,
0428 894 069,

emma.leonard@bigpond.com

*Emma Leonard attended the ICPA

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