Precision agriculture harnesses the power of the Internet of Things (IoT), drones, satellites, and self-driving vehicles to improve productivity, reduce overhead costs, and create better environmental outcomes. Increasingly, technologies like advanced sensors and monitoring equipment collect data which enables farmers to make data-driven decisions, leading to more efficient and effective farming practices. Earlier, the competitive advantage relied upon learning and knowledge built over many years of farming in a particular area, but today, the rich data available to farmers through precision agriculture is increasingly accelerating the learning process. It will assist producers in adapting practices to specific atmospheric, soil, and market conditions. Where production gains over the last century depended on increasing the size of tractors and related machinery, increases in the next will rely primarily on data generated on farms that dramatically improves the efficiency and precision of farm operations.
With the world population expected to reach 11 billion and the demand for food production to double by 2050, the necessity for increased productivity with the most efficient use of natural resources will continue to rise. Adoption of next-generation precision agriculture technologies is critical to meeting this need. Precision application of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, for example, can enable farmers to manage more granular location-based characteristics, saving money and increasing efficient use of resources. These technologies can also positively impact water quality through better use of water, soils, and fertilizer.
Data standards, privacy, and security related to IoT sensor technology and data sharing across technology platforms remain key challenges to IoT technologies achieving their full potential in the agriculture sector
As business owners, farmers must carefully evaluate the return on investment a particular precision agriculture technology will bring. In row crop production, for example, autonomous self-driving vehicles have seen robust adoption, with 50 percent of planted acres of some crops in the United States using guidance systems. Specialty crops and livestock operations are maturing more gradually in the use of precision agriculture technologies as they prove out in cost-benefit analyses.
Data standards, privacy, and security related to IoT sensor technology and data sharing across technology platforms remain key challenges to IoT technologies achieving their full potential in the agriculture sector. And the availability of high-speed internet access is another crucial factor affecting the ease with which new technologies can be integrated. But today, there is still a significant connectivity infrastructure gap between rural and urban areas.
The 2018 Farm Bill requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a Precision Agriculture Taskforce that in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will focus on identifying gaps in broadband coverage on cropland and ranchland. It also includes the steps that need to be taken to most effectively expand broadband deployment in agricultural areas. The Taskforce will also evaluate the future connectivity needs of farmland in the United States. This is important, given that IoT technologies coming online will measure agriculture production at the level of individual plants. The volume of data generated on farms is therefore expected to increase logarithmically and the need for increased connectivity to grow commensurate with this explosive growth.
In April, the USDA released a report titled “A Case for Rural Broadband.” It explores the interdependency between adequate rural broadband internet infrastructure and the potential economic benefits of next-generation precision agriculture technologies in the broader agricultural economy. USDA’s analysis suggests that connected technologies have the potential to create $47-65 billion in annual gross benefit for the United States. Also, if internet infrastructure and on-farm capabilities became available to meet producer demand, the U.S. agriculture industry could realize benefits as high as 18 percent of total production based on 2017 levels.
Next-generation precision agriculture technologies and broadband connectivity are vital elements of a prosperous rural America, but their potential impact is also much broader. Food security is a national and global concern, and access to safe, nutritious foods is fundamental to individual well-being everywhere. In this sense, just as the emerging precision agriculture technologies depend on American farmland and ranchland that is fully connected, so do we all.