Precision farming, or precision agriculture, is a term used to describe the process of optimising food production by harnessing technology and data. This feedback loop of observation, data collection, analysis, and application, allows farmers to do more with less - maintaining or even driving up efficiencies while lowering input and costs.
Precision agriculture is being lauded as a possible approach for achieving the UN's goal of increasing food production by 50% in the next 30 years, to meet increasing demand from growing populations. That's the equivalent of a global increase in productivity of 1.75% per year for the next 3 decades. Consider that the total area of arable land is only decreasing, and it quickly becomes apparent how these technological advances can seem so appealing.
The use of GPS technology in agriculture has unfolded in recent years, and has proven to be game-changing in more ways than one. This satellite farming appears to be the foundational step in guiding farmers to a more data-driven approach to agriculture, one that might ensure food security for all in the coming years.
Satellite farming, or GPS farming, is the use of satellites for agricultural purposes. Their applications are wide-ranging, and have evolved over time. However, the primary use case is mounting a GPS system on a tractor, and using it to map out the field the tractor is covering with incredible precision, sometimes as precise as ±1cm.
The advantages conferred by such equipment and technologies include detailed mapping and imaging of fields, which are then used as the base data for further precision agritech tools to build upon, such as variable rate applicators and harvest sensors, which map various factors of the land and their variability, in order to maximise output while minimising inputs.
GPS enables real time data collection, which produces accurate position information, and efficient analysis of large amounts of geospatial data. This is a real upgrade for farmers, who in the past lacked the tools to determine if or how different production methods and crop yields were correlated, across large parcels of land.
GPS in agriculture relies on a GPS system mounted on a tractor, and satellites orbiting the Earth. These satellites triangulate and ping signals to the GPS system and back. Four satellites are required, one for each of the four dimensions of time and space - longitude, latitude, altitude, and time. The time delay between when the signal was sent and when it was received allows the GPS system to "know" where it is in spacetime.
Harnessing satellite farming by mounting a GPS system on a tractor, farmers can unlock an invaluable amount of data that can be used to further optimise their production system.
Here are a few applications of GPS in agriculture in various stages of crop production.
Attempting to draw the boundaries of a farm relying on visual observation alone is tedious and unreliable. GPS technology alleviates the imprecision associated with such an act, helping the farmers overcome challenges they face when working the fields. GPS in agriculture can map the relief, boundaries, and more with little to no effort on the part of the farmer - a map which serves as a "baseline" for further precision agriculture activity.
Beyond just mapping, GPS in agriculture also assists in plowing. Combined with modern guidance technology and other automatic steering systems, GPS can help farmers place furrows in their field with much greater precision. This same equipment can be used to precisely place seeds within the newly-created furrows.
Using GPS technology, farmers can identify locations that are nutrient deficient and apply the appropriate amounts of fertilizer in specific locations. In this way, combining a mounted GPS system with another arm of precision agriculture equipment called variable rate applicators can result in great gains in efficiency.
GPS can as well be used to monitor the yields in a given field. Mounting a GPS system and a yield monitoring system side by side atop combines allow farmers to ascertain the variable yields of different areas of their land, easing the struggle of determining correlation between farming method and yield. The farmer simply needs to compare the yield map to the map showing variable rate of fertilizer application to determine whether there are any visible patterns.
As discussed, there are a few notable advantages of satellite farming. Firstly, satellite farming allows for greater efficiency in farming. It saves farmers time and resources, such as seeds, fertiliser, insecticide, herbicides, and labor, as the application of these inputs are automated and optimised.
Reduced inputs, in turn, result in a farming operation with a lower impact on the environment - mineral fertilisers for example are products of fossil fuels - and higher profit margins for farmers.
In addition to improving the livelihood of farmers, boosting food production, and ensuring lower levels of inputs, GPS in agriculture can also help farmers gain a better understanding of their land. Gaining valuable insights into the rhythms of the seasons and effects of the weather on their mapped land in real time allows farmers to make the most informed decisions no matter the time of year.
Some believe that the future of agriculture is fully automated, and that the robots will lead us out of food insecurity into edible abundance. While satellites and other technologies such as sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cloud-based technologies have all risen to prominence and even popularity in some parts, they remain a distant dream for many.
While those who can afford these high-investment tools will likely see a considerable boost in their yields year on year, this is not a solution that will be available to everyone at the same time. There is still a need for localised, lower-tech, lower-cost solutions that have measurable and meaningful impact on the livelihoods, health, and wellbeing of those in the least privileged communities.