Convergence of technology and platforms
By Dale Steele P.Ag. Precision Agronomist
Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Imagine the vision Henry Ford had for the automobile industry as he built the factories and components in 1908 that would become the vehicle assembly platform for the 20th century. Early automobiles were indeed “found on road dead” as the punchline of an old joke goes, and farmers would have been a segment of society that wanted to keep their horses. But the assembly line brought together the components and processes to create the future vehicles that people didn’t know they wanted.
At the time, few people understood how to build an assembly line for automobiles. Today, few people understand the technical components of precision agriculture. Some people view precision agriculture as driving straighter with bigger or faster equipment, while others envision farms with driverless tractors and swarms of robots tending each plant.
Agriculture is undergoing a period of technology convergence, and precision agriculture is the virtual assembly line of new tools and processes to enable more efficient operations and measurable results. Initially there were distinct segments, each providing services to agriculture such as manufacturing (equipment, seed, fertilizer, herbicide/fungicide), crop input retail, record keeping, grain merchants and consulting services. In the early days of tractors, there were hundreds of small manufacturers that consolidated into the dominant brands.
The ongoing growth and mergers of companies has resulted in farm service providers that participate in numerous segments to provide a bundle of interrelated services beyond their core businesses. Competition is a wonderful motivator that is currently directing billions of dollars into agriculture, and specifically precision agriculture, to disrupt the status quo. New alliances and partnerships are forming as companies strive to share development costs and secure channel access to reach farmers. Now there are over 100 companies offering precision agriculture services, ranging from tech startups to Fortune 500 companies, all striving to create the virtual assembly line for precision agriculture.
The platforms produced from this convergence are the apps, websites and cloud storage facilities that can utilize all the information and data collected by any sensor, device or equipment. Our imagination leaps to futuristic tools of The Jetsons or Star Trek, depending on your generation, but today’s technology is confusing because technology adoption takes time.
Progress tends to be a series of challenges that are overcome by a series of small innovations and new ideas. Equipment sensors can collect “as applied” and yield data, and alert the operator to hundreds of possible equipment fault codes. There are about 1100 active satellites orbiting the Earth and the remote sensing satellites gather massive amounts of data that is valuable for agriculture. Improved cellular and Internet services have enabled data to be sent to powerful cloud computer servers with specialized software that are available to rent at a fraction of the cost of buying your own computers. You can now stand in any field on the planet and hold a tremendous amount of site-specific field data in your hands.
Your smartphone or tablet may enable your great leap forward, but first you need to learn to navigate the platforms, websites and apps, just like you learned how to drive. I encourage you to try out the numerous websites and apps to see the features and options available.
The ultimate precision agriculture platform hasn’t been created yet, as companies are still gathering the parts and building the assembly platforms. More fieldwork is required to determine the correct stacking sequence for the data layers and how many years and layers of data are required. How many in-season images, soil tests or weather stations are required to collect sufficient data is still being debated. New products and services are being developed, but unlike the Model T, precision agriculture can tailor the service levels or products to each specific farm. Prices, features and options will vary just like your vehicle choices today.
Technology convergence has the potential to fill the needs of many stakeholders because the resulting software platform doesn’t cost much to operate and deliver through the Internet. It is difficult to determine what the most popular precision agriculture platform will look like in 2020 and who will own it, but farmers will have the most advanced tools to monitor their operations, their crops and the environment. Farmers will continue to rely on their experiences to make decisions every day and the measurement tools will be better.
Imagine if the “Internet of Things” was actually functioning on your farm to catalogue every action performed. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of devices, equipment and buildings that are connected with sensors and switches. Instead of wasting human time to record farm actions like when you seeded, changed rates and crop inputs, identified crop pests and updated field records, yield and moisture by area, the loads hauled and bins managed… what if the data was collected automatically by your tools?
That information alone is just a record of what you did. But aggregated over years and compared to thousands of farms, it will display patterns and management choices that are the most valuable. History has examples of countries and societies that forgot how to farm. Perhaps the adoption of reduced tillage practices would not have taken decades if better data was available? Benchmarking the actions and results to validate best practices is an old concept, but aggregated data can make it a powerful tool again as we discuss climate change and environmental stewardship.
The assembly line continues to be the most efficient method to produce most of the products in the world today. Imagine what we can produce with precision agriculture once we figure out how to operate its virtual assembly line efficiently.