17 feb 2023 · 23 min. 10 sec.

One of the most talked about technologies to reduce the environmental impact of conventional agriculture is so-called precision agriculture or precision-ag. Precision-ag means using GPS-enabled sensors, including drone-mounted cameras, to...

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One of the most talked about technologies to reduce the environmental impact of conventional agriculture is so-called precision agriculture or precision-ag. Precision-ag means using GPS-enabled sensors, including drone-mounted cameras, to generate spatial data, which can help tell farmers what is happening across a farm or field in real space and time. In theory, these insights can then be used to vary an application of chemical fertiliser or pesticide across a field, according to where these are needed most, for example, to stop the practice of just spraying everything, or to save money.

I talked to Tyler Nigon, principal scientist at the U.S. precision-ag company, Sentera, which specialises in drone image processing. One of Sentera’s main areas of business today is to use drone images to help crop breeders select out-performing plants. But I also wanted to get into what exactly is precision agriculture; how it can improve the sustainability of farming; and when it will go mainstream.

Key observations from the podcast included:
  • Two main types of drone-mounted sensor include RGB (red green blue) and multi-spectral sensors
  • RBG is higher resolution, meaning it has the potential to identify weeds from crop plants, and so determine precise herbicide applications, to use less herbicide. This is a big area of investment right now. But it’s not there yet.
  • Multi-spectral sensors are lower resolution. By measuring the energy reflected off plants, they can help determine plant health and nitrogen uptake. The technology is already there for a drone image to show nitrogen uptake by crops, say in pounds or kilos of N per acre or ha. But the all-important next step is difficult - to use these data to pin-point which parts of a field need more or less N application going forwards. This is still more of an art than a science.
  • As a result – there is not yet solid evidence of a big return on investment in precision-ag in production agriculture, and so, it hasn’t yet gone mainstream.
  • To date, big users have included crop breeders, in small-plot, research trials, who are now very advanced in use of the technology.
  • Mainstream precision-ag may have to wait until regulation requires farmers to adopt the technology, or until there’s a very clear return on investment. “One of these two things have to happen.”
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Autore Gerard Wynn
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