Farming for the Future

Laura McNamara

Simon Blackmore is changing the future of farming with his Unibots project (see post), but he’s also farming for the future with the European project Future Farm. But, Simon says, the project is all about implementing the technologies of today:

“The purpose of Future Farm is to take a lot of the technologies and processes that we’ve been developing in precision agriculture and actually integrate them together into a farm management situation,” said Simon. “So we’re not going to be developing necessarily any new technologies or any new real ideas but learn how to bring them together.”

Robotics, biofuels, energy self-sufficiency and particularly precision agriculture are all key aspects to the European project.

“We’re also looking at the socio-economic aspects. Looking at biofuels, and we also have one part looking at robotics,” Simon said.”

Simon says simplifying the precision farming techniques of today is a big part of thoroughly integrating it in agriculture’s future:

“Well that’ s an issue of adoption and I’ve actually written some papers on adoption where we’ve been looking at why precision farming hasn’t actually gone into the mainstream,” Simon said. “And one of the main reasons is as I’ve said, this level of complexity. As scientists and engineers we can produce a map of many many different things, soil types, nutrient holding capacity and so on. But actually how many of these things are relevant to management decision and the secondly even if they are relevant the tools that make them available aren’t readily available for the farmer. So another aspect to the problem with the adoption of precision is the timeliness. So therefore we have the knowledge but we don’t necessarily have all the tools and those tools are not integrated, so these are the aspects we’re trying to build.”

I interviewed Simon about what the future of farming looks like for the EU. You can listen to my interview here:

Simon Blackmore, Project Manager of Future Farm

Audio, Education, GPS, Research, Resources Newsletter

Chuck Zimmerman NewsletterThe latest edition of the newsletter is available. You can find it online here. The newsletter is published 3 times a year.

If you didn’t receive the newsletter and would like subscribe then you may do so using this link.

Here’s what you’ll find in this issue:

  • Hands-free AutoTrac Universal Steering Upgraded
  • StarFire RTK Networks Grow
  • Manage Harvest Data for Profit
  • Improved Yield Monitor Moisture Tracking
  • Valuable Links

Precision Progress in Iowa

Laura McNamara

The 2008 Farm Progress Show is just around the corner. Both Chuck and I will be on-site providing constant updates throughout the event, August 26th through 28th. I’m sure we’ll find plenty of information on precision agriculture, so be sure to check back here for the latest precision farming news from Boone, Iowa.

The show is boasting the following for participants and visitors:

  • Field demonstrations: harvesting and tillage
  • Ride ‘n Drive
  • New product introductions
  • GPS display and demonstrations
  • Seed and crop technology plots
  • Marketing seminars
  • Cattle handling demonstrations
  • Equine events
  • Antique tractors and equipment
  • Crafts and collectible farm toys
  • 75-acre exhibit field featuring hundreds of top agribusinesses from around the world
Dealers, Displays, Equipment, Events, International

Robotic Agriculture

Laura McNamara

UnibotsRobots are the future of agriculture if you ask Simon Blackmore. I’ve already acquainted readers with the forward-thinking agriculturist and inventor, exploring both his role with FutureFarm and Unibots. But, both projects are innovative and impressive enough to merit a closer look. In this interview with Simon, we discuss the creation of his own company: Unibots. The company supports research on small machines conducted around the world and looks at how to commercialize the new technologies for use in agriculture.

The goal, Simon says, is to have a fleet of machines that don’t need people.

“We realized that the ultimate treatment area is one plant,” Simon said. “So this is now what we’re calling phytotechnology or plant scale husbandry. Where these autonomous machines can actually then sense what is happening to this individual plant and then carry out operations on this individual plant because there’s no way that that would be cost effective or viable on a man system but as soon as the person is taking off then it’s very feasible.“

Simon says now is the time to embrace such robotic concepts because the robotic machines can work seamlessly into the current development of precision agriculture technology.

“It’s quite an exciting time to try to think laterally instead doing things the way we’ve always done them in the past,” Simon said. “Then look at the fundamental crop needs and then design a new smart machine to deal with these fundamental crop needs in a different way than what we have done in the past.

You can listen to my interview with Simon here:
Simon Blackmore, Managing Director of Unibots

Audio, Education, Research

The PVI Approach to Estimating Crop Ground Cover

Laura McNamara

Nithya Rajan, post-doctorate research assistant with Texas Tech UniversityThere’s a new way to estimate crop ground cover. It’s called the Perpendicular Vegetation Index (PVI) approach. Traditionally, remote-sensing-related precision agriculture applicaitons use the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) application. But, Nithya Rajan says her research suggests that the PVI way could be the better way. Nithya is a post-doctorate research assistant with Texas Tech University. She says results from studies conducuted in agricultural fields in the Texas High Plains show that PVI is more effective in constructing maps of crop ground cover than NDVI. The advantage comes, she says, from the fact that PVI does not require field scouting or empirical relationships like NDVI.

Nithya says the technology for PVI is fully available for interested researchers and growers. The next step, she says, is determining how this new technology fits best with real world applications. I spoke with Nithya about her research. You can listen to my interview with Nithya here:

Nithya Rajan, post-doctorate research assistant with Texas Tech University

Audio, Precision Ag in the News, Research

Precision Drives More Ethanol from Corn

Laura McNamara

Ethanol production is taking off throughout the U.S. It seems a new ethanol plant is popping up every week. Well, maybe not every week. But, it is safe to say that, with the recent high gas prices and the recent push for alternative fuels, ethanol plants are coming online at an accelerated rate.

This recent surge in ethanol production means corn growers are looking at corn in a new way. Starch is now a high dollar attribute of corn and that means farmers are interested in ways they can get more starch out of each crop yield. Therein lies the problem. Matias Ruffo, a post-doctorate researcher from the Crop Physiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says his studies have found that nitrogen fertilizer can have a negative impact on ethanol yield and starch concentration in corn.

But, Mattias says his research in the U.S. has found ways to minimize that loss and optimize ethanol yields from corn. Mattias says that through the use of a variable rate nitrogen, a precision farming technique, farmers can have a positive impact on ethanol yields compared to the traditional uniform nitrogen application. In effect, Matias says growers can increase their ethanol yields through an exact nitrogen rate application to their crops. This technique, he says, means corn will have a less negative response to Nitrogen as it relates to ethanol yield. This result is even more successful, he says, when it’s applied to specific hybrid corn varieties. Mattias says nitrogen will have a more negative impact on yellow, non-specific corn than on a hybrid designed specifically for ethanol yields.

“The ethanol plants will be benefited by having a precision ag program as far as their work with farmers because they will see an increase in their ethanol yield as a grain with improved quality,” Mattias said.

I interviewed Mattias about his research on the impact nitrogen fertilizer has on ethanol yields. You can listen to my interview with Mattias here: Mattias Ruffo, post-doctorate researcher with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Audio, Education, Precision in Practice, Research

Precision Works for Farmers

Laura McNamara

Elliot Nowels, Director of the Precision Agriculture InstituteWe’ve featured various articles from the Precision Agriculture Institute here on and that’s because we’ve recognized just how committed the independent media company is to precision agriculture. The time and research the institutes’s journalists pour into the study of precision technology and the stories they publish on is extensive. That’s why it’s safe to say that the institute represents a leading voice of expertise in the field of precision. That’s also why the institute developed PrecisionAg Works, a resource for “ag professionals considering adopting or deepening use of precision ag practices.”

I caught up with Elliot Nowels, the Director of the Precision Agriculture Institute and grilled him on what he knows best. We talked about the growth of precision, it’s value as a sound investment for farmers, trends in the adoption of precision technologies, benefits of precision technologies, cost savings and more.

“We’re trying to get across the idea that precision ag is more efficient, you can be a better steward of resources when you’re doing this, and that there’s more of a profitability associated with precision ag,” Elliot said. “That really it’s a better time to adopt this technology than ever before.”

You can listen to my interview with Elliot here: Elliot Nowels, Director of the Precision Agriculture Institute

Audio, Education, Equipment, Research, Resources

Fertilizer Compliments Precision

Laura McNamara

International Plant Nutrition InstitutePrecision ag companies boast that their technologies boast can reduce input costs by reducing the amount of fertilizer farmers need to use. So, at first, it might not make sense for a fertilizer company to be so enthusiastically on board with precision technology as the International Plant Nutrition Institute. But Harold Reetz, the Director of External Support for IPNI, says the fertilizer industry has every reason to be involved in precision agriculture. He adds that’s why the IPNI not only participated but helped sponsor the 9th annual International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, CO last month.

Harold says precision technology not only improves “production practices and profitability for farmers,” it also means they are “better able to use nutrients they way they should and do better management with nutrients.” So for Harold, precision and fertilizer work hand in hand, especially he says, when it comes to more environmentally-conscious agriculture. Harold says the IPNI is committed more sustainable approaches to farming.

I spoke with Harold about how fertilizer fits in with precision. You can listen to my interview with Harold here:
Harold Reetz, Director of External Support for the International Plant Nutrition Institute


FutureFarm and a Field of Robots

Laura McNamara

Dr. Simon Blackmore, Founder and Managing Director of Unibots and Manager of FutureFarm.Dr. Simon Blackmore says he has his sights set on the future of agriculture. Not many could doubt that after considering the extensive breadth of research and development the world-renowned agriculturist continually applies to his work in precision farming.

Simon was a leading speaker at the 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture, sharing his expertise on two main fronts: FutureFarm and Unibots.

FutureFarm is a project that’s meant to conceptualize and then fully manifest the European Union’s ideas on the Farm of Tomorrow. As manager of FutureFarm, Simon says precision agriculture techniques are critical to the development of agriculture. He says FutureFarm is researching and conducting real-world tests of how precision agriculture is reshaping farming practices around the world. It’s a project, he says, that considers and studies integration of information systems, real-time management support, implications of biofuels, socio-economic impacts, the development of robotics and more.

FutureFarmUnibots is the brainchild of Simon himself. Simon is the founder and managing director of Unibots Ltd, a company that commercializes academic research in mobile outdoor robots. Robots, not men, make up most of the labor force in Simon’s vision of the future of agriculture. There are many factors, Simon says, that support the need for such a robotic future. He points out that current technology means farming machinery such as combines, sprayers and plows get bigger to increase output. But, Simon says that trend cannot continue. There will be a point where size gets to big to handle.

Instead, Simon says the ag industry needs to focus on developing more intelligent machines that are sensitive to plant needs. He says replacing large manned tractors with multiple, small intelligent machines would offer numerous advantages. The use of robots, he says, can provide opportunities to conduct operations that are not currently possible or that currently cost too much time and money. Robots can be designed to operate on low energy. They can target inputs intelligently. He says they are also cost effective through incremental investment and integrated fleet management – such as implementing longer working hours, increased working rates and intelligent response to weather. For example, he says robots can work through the night. Or, he adds, they can be programmed to stop working during rainfall or high wind, simply waiting to resume work on-site once weather conditions become optimal again.

UnibotsSimon isn’t dreaming all this up. His company has already developed robots that can intelligently work through the field, such as a cycloid weed hoe with retracting legs to avoid crop damage, notched disc weeding machines, autonomous tractors, remote controlled tractors, autonomous crop scouting with weed recognizing microsprayers and more.

The agriculturist says he is convinced that equipment will continue to become “smarter.” The industry, in his opinion, will continue improving the automatic control of well-defined tasks and automated data gathering. This, he says, will lead to improved data processing into real information. Simon says the possibility for fully autonomous vehicles with sensible behavior is entirely real and the opportunity for development is now. It’s time, he says, to begin designing and building a new, small and smart mechanization system.

You can listen to Simon give an overview of his extensive work here. I have also spoken with Simon on each topic in two separate interviews that will be posted in the near future.
Dr. Simon Blackmore speaks about FutureFarm and Unibots.

Audio, Equipment, Events, International, Research, Standards, University

Precision Tech Versus Precision Science

Laura McNamara

Dr. Joseph Berry speaks about the science behind precision agriculture.The technology of precision and the science behind it are two very distinct things you ask Dr. Joseph Berry. Joseph is a leading consultant and educator in the application of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS technology. He possesses more than 40 years of experience in GIS. As far as how GIS applies to precision agriculture, well, Joseph’s work and research spans more than 15 years. When it comes to precision agriculture today, Joseph considers one specific question in particular:

“Is the technical cart in front of the scientific horse?”

Joseph says he believes the science of precision agriculture is at significantly different stage of development than the technology and application of precision agriculture. His focus is on the science.

The concept of precision agriculture encompasses several roles for Joseph. He says it is a technique that’s applied when “doing right thing at the right place at the right time”. He adds that it also identifies and responds to field variability. That, he says, is where and when it applies to science. One thing Joseph says precision agriculture doesn’t do is “replace indigenous knowledge.” Rather, “it’s a mechanism to extend it.”

Joseph spoke at this month’s 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, CO. He gave listeners a brief overview of how GIS, specifically, transformed from a technology not necessarily related to precision agriculture into a science that specifically supplements the technologies driving precision agriculture. He says GIS in particular is a big deal:

“The U.S. department of Labor has said geotechnology is one of three mega technologies for the 21st century,” Joseph said. “We identified only three that are radically going to change society. The other two are biotechnology and and nanotechnology. So the field [precision agriculture] you’re tinkering in is thought to be a mega technology.”

Precision agriculture is also a technology that Joseph says is rapidly changing the entire agriculture industry. Joseph says the application he works with, fully integrated multimedia mapping analysis, is no different. For him, advances in GIS and mapping are enabling farmers to switch from what he calls a “whole field” approach to farming to a “site-specific” method.

The “whole field” approach is one that Joseph says assumes and relies on the fact that “average” conditions are the same everywhere within the field. A field is uniform and homogeneous. He points out though, that this is rarely the case. Thus, he concludes that applying such an approach leaves room for a tremendous amount of error when trying to maximize both procedural input and output.

Joseph’s solution is the “site-specific” method, where a field is broken into small consistent pieces, or cells. Specific conditions are then tracked at each unique location. Joseph says this method scientifically demonstrates the nature of significant variation in the field. He adds that, accordingly, as the variation is measured in such detail, the management action can be constructed to continuously respond to such variation.

The science, Joseph says, moves from whole field applications to site-specific measurement. The technology is then developed and adjusted to accommodate the science.

Joseph says the agriculture industry has “a long way to go with the precision farming process.” But, he says that’s exciting. The future of agriculture is just beginning.

You can listen to Joseph’s incredibly detailed explanation here:
Dr. Joseph Berry speaks about his ideas on the science behind precision agriculture.

Audio, Education, Events, GPS, Satellite