John Deere leads the way with IoT-driven precision farming

Precision farming makes the most of limited natural resources to feed more people

Did you know that one in seven people in the U.S. depends on food banks to survive?

Or that one out of six children—roughly 100 million—in developing countries is underweight?

Hunger is a global problem.

Natural resources are limited. How do you grow more food on the same amount of land? Lower the cost of food production?

Lane Arthur tackles this challenge every day for John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG). Arthur is ISG’s director of digital solutions, and his team develops IoT and data driven solutions for farmers. Arthur is amazing! He has a Ph.D. in genetics and development from Columbia University in addition to a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Georgia. He recently explained how IoT-based precision agriculture increases crop yields by optimizing land, seed and fertilizer usage.

What is precision agriculture?

Precision agriculture is about getting more from each decision, each job that goes into growing the food we eat. The foundation of that is highly automated farming machines guided by software, GPS technology and satellites. With sub-inch accuracy, farmers control the precise placement of seeds and chemicals. They spray precisely the right amount of fertilizer and harvest precisely. Sensors and IoT make those things possible.

Does precision farming require drivers?

The tractors do have drivers, but the highly automated machines run themselves by GPS technology and modems in the cabs. You keep a driver there because you need to get to the field, to turn the tractor around, and in some cases adjust it a bit.

Precision agriculture depends on knowing your precise location on a field. GPS coordinates aren’t 100 percent accurate; they are often plus or minus 20 or 30 feet. A real reference point on the ground is used for triangulation to improve accuracy. John Deere uses Real Time Kinematics (RTK) and correction signals to provide farmers’ equipment with sub-inch accuracy.

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How precision agriculture increases food production

Farmers don’t farm alone. They rely on others for seed and fertilizer recommendations. Farming productivity improves as partners are connected. Sensors provide the information needed by the partners in the farming ecosystem to increase yields through better coordination.

Here’s an example: A farmer has finished harvesting his corn. He doesn’t own the equipment to break up the corn stalks so that they don’t wither and decay. Sensors detect when a field has been harvested and alert the partner that has the equipment to break up the corn stalks. This level of coordination across hundreds of partners ensures that more food can be grown more efficiently.

The kind of data that is tracked

Agriculture involves five steps:

  1. Preparing the soil
  2. Planting
  3. Spraying applications, fertilizer or chemicals
  4. Harvesting
  5. Managing: Determining what you did well and what you’ll do next year by collecting data for all of these steps

For example, consider planting seeds in a 100-acre field with about 33,000 seeds per acre. Just the right number of seeds has to be planted at the right location and depth to maximize yields. Traditional planting systems use a seed tube. Precision farming improves spacing accuracy by compensating for turns that the planter makes while maintaining in-row spacing. This reduces wasted seeds and stunted plants when they’ve been planted too close together.

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How the sensor data from a planter is managed

Data from the sensors on the planter is fed to a wireless data server under the seat of the tractor. It pushes the data to the cloud every five seconds. John Deere has its own data centers, but the company also works with public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). Communication with the planter is bidirectional.

A seed rep might divide a field into zones based on elevation and soil type. He prepares a "seed prescription" for the field—similar to a medical prescription. This defines what seeds should be planted and at what spacing on the field. The planting instructions are sent directly to the John Deere planter, which changes the seed planting accordingly. It’s highly automated.

Who owns the sensor data? Farmers or John Deere?

Data is extremely valuable. John Deere believes farmers should control the data generated by their operations. This involves deciding who it should be shared with. For example, a farmer could decide to share data from one field or only share data from one planting season with a partner.

How IoT increases farm yields

Seed providers work closely with farmers to recommend what seeds to use in order to maximize crop yields. Sensor data on soil conditions, moisture and crop yields for that field drives such recommendations, which benefit both the farmer and the seed provider.

Example recommendation:

“We’ve looked at your results, and this hybrid is better suited for your fields and your soil than the ones you used this past year. I have a better product recommendation for you and a rate. If you had put that in at 30,000 seeds per acre, you would have been better in this part of the field; in another part of the field don’t plant so much.”

Seed providers also use the sensor data to design new seed varieties. They can improve seed characteristics by evaluating the yields that their customers achieve in different soil types and weather conditions.

How willing are farmers to innovate?

Farmers are very innovative and willing to try things to see if it helps them do their job better, Arthur said. They’re incredibly industrious and entrepreneurial. They rig their own machines; they do all kinds of stuff. Even people toward the end of their careers have a history of doing the next best thing.

“I recently met with two family farmers, a father and son. The dad said precision farming was interesting, but he wasn’t sure about it. The son commented that because of sensor data, they changed their fertilizer strategy and used less fertilizer," Arthur said. "It’s a generational thing where the younger person adopts it faster. In other cases, the older guys are pushing the younger guys.”

Global hunger unfortunately isn’t disappearing any time soon. Precision farming let’s growers make the most of limited natural resources to feed more people.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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