The idea behind precision agriculture has been around for about two decades. But farmers in the United States and Canada were slow to adopt the technology at a time when crop prices were stagnant.

Times have certainly changed. Precision agriculture is now big business for geospatial companies. Companies such as Trimble Navigation, Leica Geosystems and Topcon Positioning Systems have invested in precision agriculture companies and product lines in recent years. For example, when Trimble bought Rawson Control Systems in late 2008, it assumed Rawson’s position as a founding member of the PrecisionAg Institute, which seeks to advance precision agriculture technology on farms around the world. 

As more arable land was taken away during the housing boom of the last decade, more farmers in the United States began turning to precision agriculture and other technological innovations to increase yields. When commodity prices for grain soared during the ethanol craze of the late-2000s, those increased yields turned into increased profits. And those profits resulted in increased spending on additional geospatial tools, because the return on farmers’ investments in technology has proven to be worth the cost.

“For me, ag is another one of those industries where the solutions that we’re all part of, these geospatial solutions, are getting adopted very, very quickly,” said Ken Mooyman, president of Leica's North American region. “That’s what drives our growth and opportunities. It’s a really a great industry to be a part of, because there’s such a great contribution to society (to meet) the challenges that we have.”

Chief among those challenges is population growth, particularly in developing countries. According to the recently released World Population Prospects report from the United Nations, the world’s 7.2 billion people will increase to 8.1 billion in 2025 and 9.6 billion in 2050. Most of that growth will occur in developing regions, which are projected to increase from 5.9 billion in 2013 to 8.2 billion in 2050. Adoption of precision agriculture, particularly in those developing regions, can play a significant role in feeding all of these new people.

Douglas D. Fisher, 

Hexagon AB President and CEO Ola Rollén talks about opportunities in precision agriculture during his keynote address during HxGN Live on June 4 at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. “At the end of the day, if you use this process in a systematic way, we can reduce the amount of water we need. We can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides we use in the field, and we can increase output,” he said.

Precision agriculture relies on geospatial technologies such as satellite imagery, GPS and GNSS, and geographic information systems software to make sense of the data. GIS software can be used to produce crop simulation models from baseline maps. Farmers can analyze soils, derive physical characteristics of the crop in the ground and overlay crop history to predict future output by investing in geospatial technologies and GIS software.

GPS allows farm equipment to return to a specific spot in a field to gather data over and over. This computer-driven equipment can then change the rate at which fertilizer, seed, water or pesticide is disbursed.

Farmers can also gather this data through aerial imagery and analysis and feed it into a handheld device or farm equipment. Geospatial professionals can fly over fields and capture this information remotely, upload it to the cloud and analyze it for the farmer, who may then download the information and react to it. In addition to commercial pilots using LiDAR and photogrammetry, unmanned aerial systems are projected to have an impact on precision agriculture, according to a recent report from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The data analysis on farmers’ fields can answer a variety of questions, such as does the farmer need to water more? Does the field require more or less fertilizer in certain areas? How are insects reacting to the pesticides the farmer applied on a specific field?

“You basically highlight these areas on your feeds and then what you do is you program your tractor to go to those highlighted areas and basically sort out whatever problem you have,” said Hexagon AB President and CEO Ola Rollén. “The tractor is controlled by precision GPS, so we’ve basically got millimeter accuracy out in the field to basically do the remedy we suggested.”

Then after the “remedy” is applied, the farmer can hire geospatial professionals to fly over the field again and analyze whether or not progress has been made.

Satellite imagery has also proved invaluable to increasing yields. Ben Kamphaus, a solutions engineer at Exelis Visual Information Solutions, studied the use of synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data fused with optical imagery and GIS mapping tools to analyze rice crop yields in Southeast Asia. He said space-borne radar has great potential for monitoring rice because other remote-sensing tools could be hampered by cloud cover.

“SAR satellite imagery offers many benefits to crop yield analysis. For rice growth in particular, SAR derived backscattering coefficients are useful for characterizing changes in biomass and soil/water conditions during the growth cycle,” Kamphaus said.

SAR data can be processed and applied for other crops, such as corn, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, tobacco and more. Kamphaus said the biggest barriers to using it include the limited availability of SAR data and the complexity of analyzing it.

He said that more businesses, organizations and agencies need to embrace solutions that can be deployed to the cloud, such as Exelis’ ENVI Services Engine, to process data more efficiently. This would let farmers get real-time analysis results whenever necessary. “Our farmer could hit this service from a mobile app without having to learn or execute the intricacies of SAR processing,” he said.

Trimble and Topcon are big players in precision agriculture. The companies offer steering and guidance systems, flow and application control, planning and historic documentation, yield monitoring and water management systems.

“Farmers are looking for better ways to make the most of all their inputs, whether nutrients, seed or diesel fuel,” said Michael Gomes, director of strategic business development for Topcon Precision Agriculture. “Precision ag tools help to increase efficiency and profitability, and improve overall farm management.”

And that allows the circle to continue: Increased output will lead to increased profits, which will lead to increased demand for more geospatial tools on the farm.