Agricultural Research Service turns to precision technology and data to boost agriculture and ranching
As the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the Department of Agriculture’s research arm is turning to new technologies and data analytics to make agricultural production and other forms of agriculture less expensive and more effective.
But as so-called precision agriculture advances, new technologies run up against an age-old problem: how do you convince users to adopt them?
“The reality is, when you look at the vast majority of our farmers, ranchers and processors, they really aren’t using these technologies,” said Mike Buser, national program manager for engineering, natural resources and systems. agriculture at the Agricultural Research Service, whose USDA team tackles the issue every day. “Part of that is an element of education.”
Precision farming refers to a range of sensors and systems that automate different tasks in agriculture and farming. Examples include systems that can identify and spray weeds in fields. Tractor guidance systems are being developed to plant crops, spray herbicides and apply fertilizers with greater precision.
USDA Focuses on Technology Acceptance
Buser’s team has spent a lot of time over the past few years working on how they communicate technology with farmers and ranchers. A key effort is partnerships for data innovations, he said.
“It’s really focused on pulling data from all of our research data silos across the country and bringing it back into a common cloud-based platform,” Buser said.
It helps that farmers and ranchers are generally more willing to share data with researchers than they were a decade ago. The information helps ARS researchers refine new systems and gather more complete datasets, while helping farmers and other consumers get the most out of the equipment, Buser said.
“If we’re able to do that, it really takes us to the next level,” he said. First, ARS can help growers take advantage of the precision farming technology they have invested in. Second, it helps ARS researchers and engineers identify possible points of failure or things that people don’t like because they aren’t user-friendly or functional. These types of things can cause users “to bypass the whole system,” Buser said.
On the horizon of precision agriculture
ARS is also looking to use fifth-generation wireless networks and unmanned aerial systems as “next-generation geographic information systems,” Buser said. Drones help researchers measure and analyze key factors such as soil erosion, crop yield and pollinators.
The USDA also works with the Federal Communications Commission through the Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force. The group provides advice and recommendations to FCC on deploying broadband Internet to unserved farmland and promoting precision agriculture.
A recent task force report recommended that the FCC and USDA collaborate and share publicly available datasets to develop broadband availability maps “that reflect and confirm unserved and underserved areas. on agricultural land”.
What is the right cloud approach for precision agriculture?
As ARS studies how to better take advantage of interconnected technologies, Buser said the service is also looking at how much data needs to be transmitted back to cloud centers.
“We often get into discussions about how many of these calculations do we really need to do locally?” he said.
Advances in microchip technology mean that more data can be processed on board sensors. Buser gave the example of a cotton production system that can glean information about the quality and moisture content of cotton at the time of its harvest.
The information could be aggregated into a module in the field and then fed to a cotton gin, which can use the analysis to ensure the cotton is not over-dried, resulting in a less valuable product .
“I think the answer is that it really depends on the production system, how much data we’re actually relaying and transferring, and what that ultimately results in – in terms of value,” Buser said.