Agriculture is gradually becoming technologically advanced. Machinery is automated, seed and fertilizer rates can be calculated automatically, and satellite images are used to determine plant conditions. Here are four new technologies for agriculture.
This article is based on a post on the OneSoil blog, edited and republished with permission.
1. Satellite images and agriculture
The first satellite was launched into space back in 1957. In the 1970s, satellites started being used for agricultural needs. That’s when scientists calculated the NDVI index that helps farmers understand what’s happening with plants in their fields. But 50 years ago, the NDVI index couldn’t be used to its full potential. Image accuracy was about 50 meters, and NDVI couldn’t be calculated in cloudy weather.
The next breakthrough in satellite use for farmers came in 2015, when a satellite with a spatial resolution of 10 meters became available. Firstly, this new resolution provides a clear picture of what’s really happening in different areas of a field. Secondly, with the invention of smartphones and apps for farmers, technology became more affordable, allowing any farmer in the world to monitor the NDVI index in their fields. However, image quality still suffers during cloudy weather, and there’s no solution for this yet that works everywhere on earth.
Satellite monitoring makes it possible to remotely monitor plant development using NDVI, CCCI, NDRE, MSAVI, and other vegetation indices, find problem areas in the field, identify crops, and predict yield.
Dutch Government invests in satellite data for agriculture
In 2017 the Dutch government announced it was freeing up 1.4 million euro for the purchase of satellite data to improve the sustainability and efficiency of farming. Among other things, this type of data contains detailed information about the soil, the atmosphere and crop development. Specialised companies can analyse the data to provide farmers with targeted advice on irrigation, fertilisation and crop-spraying activities. The satellite data is available online as open data on the Dutch satellite data portal, allowing everyone to have free access to it.
OneSoil Satellite Data Solutions
OneSoil collects open data from the Sentinel-2 satellite, processes it, calculates various indicators, and displays them in the OneSoil app. This helps farmers outline field boundaries, view the NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), identify productivity zones, and create maps for variable-rate seeding and fertilizer application.
2. Aerial Photography and Drones
Small drones appeared in the 1980s and were first used for military purposes. When these devices became more affordable, they started to be used in agriculture, as well. In the late 1990s, Japan and South Korea began to use drones to survey fields and spray fertilizers and plant protection products (PPP).
Drones take high-resolution images that need to be merged into a single orthophoto, or photographic map of the area that has been geometrically corrected to make the scale uniform. Drone photography helps detect weeds, pests, and soil changes, determine plant height, and generally assess plant health.
Dutch startup uses drones for crop monitoring
Drones provide an unrivaled solution to collect information for early warning detection of crop stress or failure. The benefits of using drone technology is its flexibility, unhampered by cloud coverage and at relatively low cost.
Dutch startup HiView uses near-infrared Flying Sensors imagery, that detects early-warning crop stress over entire farms and fields. Combined with the ultra-high resolution of low-flying drones (2-10 cm) and the precise timing of monitoring, an early-warning system is available.
Crops absorb parts of the total incoming solar radiation as a source of energy to produce biomass (photosynthesis). The amount of near-infrared radiation that is reflected by plants is a good indicator of the condition and healthiness of the crop. A healthy crop reflects most of the near-infrared radiation, whereas a crop under stressed conditions adsorbs this type of radiation. This information can be used for early warning detection of crop stress or failure. The human eye cannot see in the near-infrared and crop stress in its initial phase is therefore often observed too late.
HiView is one of 250 innovative Dutch space data organisations that we identified on our Dutch Space Industry Map 2022, that you can download here.
3. Weather sensors and IoT
The first agricultural weather sensors were developed in the 1970s. Today, modern sensors are installed directly in fields and controlled via mobile apps. Weather sensor networks sometimes function on the Internet of Things (IoT), which means other devices can perform certain automated actions by receiving data from the sensors.
Measuring everything that can be measured in the soil and air. Location sensors can determine the latitude, longitude, and altitude of any object in a field using GPS. Optical sensors measure soil properties by light. They’re mounted on satellites or drones and calculate the soil’s clay, organic matter, and moisture content. Electrochemical sensors detect certain ions in the soil and provide farmers with pH and nutrient levels. And the list goes on.
OneSoil Agriculture Weather Sensors
To monitor soil moisture and temperature, OneSoil makes weather sensors. These in-situ sensors help monitor soil conditions in different field areas, optimise irrigation schedules, and determine the best time to plant and apply fertilizers.
4. GIS and GNSS
Geographical information systems (GIS) can be traced back to 1854, when Dr. John Snow identified the source of a cholera outbreak in London. He took a city map and marked the home of each patient and the nearest sources of water, which turned out to be the cause of the cholera outbreak. The first real GIS was developed in Canada and used for rural areas to map data on soils, farms, wildlife, and recreational areas.
Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are global navigation satellite systems that can do three basic things: determine absolute location, calculate relative motion, and transmit time data to a GNSS receiver. The best known is the US Global Positioning System (GPS), which was originally a military project, but GPS is now constantly in use in all walks of life. Shortly after GPS was introduced, the European Galileo GNSS system became operational, and is now one of the four major global GNSS systems: GPS (US), Galileo (EU), Beidou (China) and Glonass (Russia).
GIS programs can be used to create field maps. For example, they’re used in soil analysis to select the right points for taking samples. GPS is used in agricultural machinery. You can choose the best route for several tractors and combines, or correctly configure autopilot. Onboard computers and GPS navigators help avoid overlapping and skipping areas when applying seeds, fertilizers, and PPP.
GNSS for precision agriculture
Precision agriculture utilises a myriad of different technologies to make farming more efficient, to improve crop yield and reduce environmental impact. GNSS-enabled applications are key to these efforts, from farm machinery guidance using GNSS positioning, to automatic steering, yield monitoring and livestock tracking. (source)
GNSS adoption rates in agriculture are growing. In the Netherlands a survey from 2014 showed that 65% of the arable farms in the Netherlands use GNSS in their operations. Similar figures have been published in Germany. UK and Denmark have a penetration of approximately 20%. In UK the bias towards larger farms means that already 60% of UK farmland is managed with GNSS. Farmers report that the reduction in overlaps and gaps is their main benefit, followed by the ability to work more accurately and pay attention to the fieldwork, as auto-guidance helps them to steer the tractor. More efficient field traffic accounts for a reduction of 10-15% in fuel consumption and inputs used – which both saves farmers money and helps the environment.
OneSoil GIS Analytics Tools for Productivity
GIS and GNSS are often used together in precision farming. OneSoil uses GIS analytics to identify productivity zones in fields and allocate areas for variable-rate seed, fertilizer, and PPP applications. Based on this they create prescription maps and upload these to the onboard computers of vehicles that apply seeds or fertilizers to certain areas of the field using GNSS. What’s more, when a farmer leaves a note in the OneSoil app during field scouting, the GNSS positioning data is automatically saved for the note. The same GNSS data can then be used to easily find the same spot in the field.
More about Space for Agriculture
We publish frequent articles about space data applications, including agriculture. You can read more in these earlier articles: