The Promise of Precision Agriculture Is Slowly Coming to Fruition

Collecting granular data about farm operations promised a revolution. Improvements have come…

Eric Schmid at Undark: For 20 years, Pablo Sobron sought a better way to learn exactly what was in the soil, rock, or any other substance on Mars.

Instead of sampling and laboratory analysis — the old way of soil testing — scientists began to use lasers and sensors to get high precision data quickly. Eventually, that led Sobron to think the same type of technology could work on Earth, particularly farms.

There have been many advancements over the years that have boosted precision. New tractors can use GPS to steer themselves and farmers now have the ability to change the rate at which they apply seeds or fertilizer on their fields. Even crop genetics and how weeds are managed have advanced.

“The only thing we have not advanced is the sensor,” he said. “The ability to see things that matter, in both the plants, the soil, and the roots.”

All of that data should help farmers make choices that will not only boost their bottom line, but curb the overuse of fertilizers and other chemicals and be more targeted about irrigation.

“The idea is to do exactly what we do on Mars, which is drive and, without stopping, get real time measurements of every square inch if you want to. As small as you want,” he said.

Impossible Sensing, the company Sobron founded in St. Louis, is now working on the second iteration of a prototype, designed to be mounted to the back of a planter. It will help farmers see exactly what’s happening in their soil in real time as they drive through their fields, revealing information about nutrient levels, soil health, water conditions, and other factors around individual plants.

“Our thinking is that having more precision on knowing what areas of the farm can take more or less [fertilizer] will allow them to apply what’s needed,” he said. “The real value and the real need here is to give insights, give knowledge; prescribe what to do and when.”

It’s what precision agriculture has promised since the 1990s — if growers get more granular data about their operations and the technology, they will put that newfound information to use for more efficient and sustainable farms.

Yet, Sobron admits all the new technology around precision agri has yet to fully transform farming. “It’s not delivering on the hype that it was sold,” Sobron said.

More here.

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