Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Sarah McCormack,
Precision agriculture (or precision farming) aims to generate more output in agricultural activities while using less input (water, energy, fertilisers, pesticides …). It is a management concept, taking the precise needs of crops and livestock into account. Precision agriculture is mainly based upon a combination of sensor technologies, GPS, and the internet of things. It has been making its way into farms across Europe and we are already able to see how it assists farmers in their work.
Currently the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel is conducting a study entitled ‘Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe’. This Scientific Foresight study aims to identify relevant legislative pathways by mapping concerns regarding future developments in precision agriculture. The first part of the study, the technical horizon scan, has been published. The final study, looking into the impact precision agriculture will have on the future of farming in the EU, will follow later this year.
There are several enabling technologies required to implement precision agriculture. These include object identification technologies, sensors, Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), information and communication technologies (ICTs), robotics and autonomous vehicles. These technologies are being used in three main sectors of agriculture: arable farming, dairy farming and forage production, and vegetable production.
What technologies are being used?
For precision agriculture to be successful, it requires sensors. Sensors capture spatial and temporal variations in the environment. They can assist farmers by capturing variations in crops, animal behaviour, soils and climate, and can measure properties, such as thermal, optical, chemical and mechanical. In precision agriculture, sensors are already being used to quantify crop biomass, climate and soil properties, and animal behaviour. Other uses of sensors, such as for the detection of pests & diseases and crop quality are expected in the future.
Another enabling technology is object identification technology. This tracks and traces animals, and agricultural and supply chain products. An example of this is Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), which has been used since the 1960s and works by using electromagnetic fields to both identify and track tags, which are attached to an object and contain electronic information about it. Recently, other technologies for object identification have been used, such as barcodes and QR-codes. These technologies require a tag on the object itself, whereas the identification of untagged objects is the next step for these technologies.
There are currently two types of autonomous vehicles, which are crucial in precision agriculture. The first are vehicles like tractors or mobile platforms fitted with technologies that allow them to undertake specific interventions in farm buildings or to successfully navigate fields. Examples of these vehicles are autonomous lawn mowers and autonomous platforms that can weed plants. The other are aerial systems, such as drones, which monitor and provide data relevant for interventions. Across EU Member States, rules and guidelines are being developed to ensure that the operators of these vehicles, other citizens, other traffic, and the environment are kept safe.
Robotics in dairy farming
There are three steps in precision agriculture: sensing, thinking and acting. The final step is also known as robotics and it uses advanced technologies to undertake particular tasks, if possible autonomously. These machines, alongside optimised hardware design, use mechatronics that require little or no human intervention, meaning that the operator becomes more of a supervisor of the machine. In dairy farming, robotics have been introduced, in the form of automated feeding systems and milking robots. They also take over heavy-duty tasks such as supplying roughage and cleaning out manure.
In addition to robotics, the dairy farming and forage production sector has benefitted from precision agriculture by using sensors. Sensors have already been integrated in process control systems and are able to support tasks and detect the behaviour of the cows. Currently, health indicators are being developed for this sector, for example collars that detect coughing. It is also being explored as to whether the data gathered by devices, such as the milking and feeding robots, can be connected to improve both animal health and productivity.
Object identification technologies have a part to play in dairy farming. For instance, when a cow enters the robotic milking machine, her tag is read and she is identified. The farmer is then provided with information, e.g. regarding her weight, how much milk she is producing, how much she has eaten, etc.
Precision agriculture practices in arable farming
One of the first precision applications in arable farming was controlled traffic farming. This applies GNSS to farm equipment to drive in the fields on fixed paths, also known as ‘tram lines’. GNSS is important for precision agriculture as it provides geo-references of the spatial variations captured by sensors. Knowing where you are in a field allows for the reduction of overlay. This in turn results in the reduction of the energy, water and agro-chemicals used. Yield mapping is another precision agriculture application which is widely used. These maps provide farmers with a visualisation of the variations in crop performance. This information can be used to adjust the amount and location of pesticide use.
How are these technologies used in field-grown vegetable farming?
There are three main applications of precision agriculture technology in vegetable farming. Selective harvesting is one of these, which allows for the harvesting of only those vegetables that are of the right quality. The second are tractors that navigate themselves with a precision sprayer, which sprays only how much is needed and where, resulting in a more than 30% reduction in pesticide use and saves labour. Finally, non-chemical weed control in vegetable crops uses a combination of sensor technology and weeding actuators.
There can be little doubt that precision agriculture will bring about significant changes and benefits. New skills will be required of farmers, who will have to adapt to these technologies and methods and we will see improvements in the quality of the environment. These are some of the issues that will be addressed in the final study to be published later this year.