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Martinez MikeThe application of GNSS sensors and machine control to agriculture, with a prescriptive approach that matches maps of the field nutrients and soil condition, has had a dramatic  impact on increased yields and cost savings for farmers. As more extremes in weather occur, this variable technology is helping ensure productivity with fewer inputs. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with Mike Martinez, Market Manager, Trimble Agriculture, about the company’s technology as well as the evolutionary path and benefits of precision agriculture practices and Trimble’s Connected Farm approach.

Martinez MikeThe application of GNSS sensors and machine control to agriculture, with a prescriptive approach that matches maps of the field nutrients and soil condition, has had a dramatic  impact on increased yields and cost savings for farmers. As more extremes in weather occur, this variable technology is helping ensure productivity with fewer inputs. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with Mike Martinez, Market Manager, Trimble Agriculture, about the company’s technology as well as the evolutionary path and benefits of precision agriculture practices and Trimble’s Connected Farm approach.

S&S: What is Trimble’s history in precision agriculture?

Martinez: We’ve been working in the agriculture market for the last 17 years. Trimble started in the GNSS world within agriculture doing vehicle guidance, with a device that would visually indicate to the user how to drive their vehicle most effectively in the field. That quickly transitioned into doing some specific machine control, where an auto-pilot system would actually take over control of the vehicle and drive the vehicle for the operator. 

That’s probably been the main staple in precision agriculture, starting out, and even today it is a core technology still that’s quite important and serves as the foundation to most of our other applications. The main user benefit for the auto-guidance is that farm operators are able to reduce overlaps in their applications so that they are not over-using inputs — seeds, chemicals, and tractor fuel and things like that.

S&S: And, conversely, not leaving any gaps?

Martinez: Exactly, not leaving any gaps. Especially because we are a global company and serve global markets, we find that in some regions farmable land is getting to be in really short supply. So, a six inch gap here, a 12 inch gap there, that really adds up whenever you are looking at 10,000 acres or more. You also don’t want crops too close together because they start robbing each other of nutrients.

The guidance technology has been around for a while and keeps getting fine tuned over the years. As far as the benefit to the user, an auto-steering system pretty much pays for itself within a season of use. We are finding that most of these technologies pay for themselves in about a season of use. A farmer will start with an auto-steering system and then will add these other technologies and compound his savings. The farming industry has taken a strong adoption toward application control, by which I mean the precise application of seeds, nutrients, pesticides — any type of input that is applied to the field.

S&S: That’s what’s referred to as the “rate”?

Martinez: It’s not only the rate but also detecting overlap of inputs. So, not only are we able to control the rate of these inputs, but we are also able to geospatially sense where we have already applied and planted. That way the system cuts the supply at those points so that you don’t waste inputs. We have a couple of specific applications for that. One is for planting where the seed grows. A tractor will be pulling a planter that can be planting 16 or even 32 rows of, say, corn at one time and as the tractor is driving around the field, if that planter happens to run over one or more rows of corn that has already been planted, we have the technology to stop planting on those specific rows, so that there is zero overlap. Again, not only does that help on seed cost, but it helps on productivity as well, so that the corn plants aren’t fighting for water and nutrients because they are so close together.

We have the same type of technology for spraying: whether we are spreading fertilizer or spraying it with spraying implements, we are able to cut the spray pattern in areas where it has already been sprayed. An environmental aspect to that is that the farmer, obviously, doesn’t want to spray less than X distance to any type of water supply. So, our system is able to indicate where those exclusion zones are and, without operator input, we are able to automatically cut the spray off before it reaches a critical distance from a water supply. That has saved many farmers from litigation or fines. More and more state agencies are cracking down on requiring farmers to have very accurate records of where they are spraying nutrients and chemicals. 

S&S: What are the inputs to the variability of the rate?

Martinez: The whole concept behind variable rate is to apply as much chemical where you need it and not waste it where you don’t need it. The next evolution to that is what we call our GreenSeeker sensor. It is a localized, real-time sensor that is mounted right to the spraying vehicle. It uses an optical sensor and a few different light bands to measure the real-time health of the crop. Immediately, as the sprayer is traveling and recording this data, it is creating a prescription to also then apply nitrogen in the right amount needed in that particular portion of the field.

As the vehicle is traveling across the field, it is producing a real-time prescription map. At the end of the day, the farmer has his maps saying, for example, in this area of the field I applied two gallons per acre and in this area I had to apply eight, because the crop needed it more and in other areas it didn’t. That has many obvious benefits: a lot of saving in chemicals and also if you are applying more fertilizer than what your plant is able to absorb, then the rest of it potentially leaches into the water supply. So, that’s another good environmental aspect.

Satellite imagery does a similar thing. However, it is sometimes not as accurate for farmers as using a local sensor that is doing it in real time due to the lag in time between when they are able to pull a satellite map and when they are actually doing work in the field. Plus, it is expensive.

S&S: What are some of the other inputs?

Martinez: In a different cycle of the farming process, there’s our water management area. This relates to the management of your field surface to best use water. Farmers are doing one of three things: nothing, field leveling, or drainage. So, in areas that get more water than desired, we want to be sure that that water is exiting the field in an appropriate manner, so that you don’t create flooded areas or overwater that damages crops. 

Again, we are using geospatial technologies to create a plan for the field: first we do a topography survey, then we create a plan for the field to either level it, completely flat with some slight angle to spread the water, or we are creating a surface design to where we are designing proper drainage and water distribution so it doesn’t necessarily need to be perfectly flat. It is actually more efficient to analyze your topographic profile and just make improvements. It is about achieving the same thing but you are moving a lot less dirt, so you reduce field time, cost, and equipment use. Same thing for drainage: we are taking a profile of the land and we are installing sub-surface drainage pipes at very specific angles and very specific depths in the field to get rid of water accumulation.

S&S: Are there applications of these technologies in all phases of farming?

Martinez: We’ve talked about guidance, planting, and nutrient application. We are also doing harvest applications: controlling a combine or any type of harvester into the field and into its most effective paths for harvesting, as well as collecting productivity data, yield data, which we call yield monitoring. This is a real-time indicator to the operator on what is going on in his field, what kind of moisture his crop is accumulating and the volume of crop being harvested. 

The yield monitor will have a volume sensor — we use an optical sensor for volume — and then the same system has a moisture sensor. So, at any given position in the field, we know the crop volume and the crop moisture. With that data we can then create a map and let the grower know exactly what he is producing within the field. You can then use that to create your next year’s plans for nutrients or for seed varieties.

S&S: How does the farmer manage all this accumulated information?

Martinez: Every one of these applications is collecting data. It is completely overwhelming to the farmer. There’s just tons of data and farmers need something to help them centralize all of it and convert it into information. 

Some of them pay agronomists or special consulting firms to do all this for them. That is effective but also very expensive and many farmers like to make their own decisions. That’s where Connected Farm comes in. Connected Farm will wirelessly extract all of this data from the growers’ applications throughout the seasons and consolidate it into one spot for them. 

The goal then is to have the Connected Farm help the farmer make intelligent business decisions. Next year he can analyze the data and say, oh, OK, I see these areas where this particular seed type just didn’t work for me, it had low productivity even though I gave it plenty of nutrients. They can make a different decision for the next season to use a better seed variety that is more suited for that space.

We focus on crop productivity and crop efficiency, but these are businesses, so they also need some business efficiency and business productivity. The Connected Farm also allows the farm manager to evaluate the productivity of his assets. So, if a farm has 20 vehicles — 10 tractors, five harvesters, and various other things — the Connected Farm is able to record the productivity of these devices. That has been really highly requested and we are now able to deliver that with the latest Connected Farm.

S&S: What does Connected Farm, as a label, cover? Is it just software and the Web site, or does it also include some hardware?

Martinez: Our main field component that is in the vehicle is our display and that is the main CPU that controls everything. It has local software that knows to send data to the Connected Farm and a cellular modem or a Wi-Fi device that does all the wireless data transfer. Outside of the cab is a large infrastructure of servers around the world that Trimble operates through which all of this data flows.

We are really interested in entry level and getting farmers to adopt new technologies, so we have a Connected Farm app. It is free and any field operator, big or small, can download it for his Android or Apple smart phone and use it to do the first level of Connected Farm tasks, such as some mapping and scouting and to take some pictures and geo-reference problem areas back to his Connected Farm portal. They can start all of this for free and then if they add services, vehicles, tractors, and other things, then they pay a subscription cost. This is a really good way for them to get started and start seeing some value in the system.

S&S: What comes standard and what is installed after-market?

Martinez: The trend toward having precision equipment in a vehicle when you buy it now is obviously growing and will probably continue to grow. While there is still a pretty large market for vehicles that don’t have equipment on them and others in the industry are serving that market quite well, there is still quite a bit of value add services and other functionalities that haven’t hit the OEM market. 

There are still quite a few customers who buy new tractors that have factory systems on them and remove that equipment and replace it with a full solution. Of course, we try to be the supplier of choice for that type of situation. For example, a customer buys a brand new tractor that has guidance already from the factory; they will remove all of that and install a full Trimble system. That is because we are a little more flexible and quick to market. We normally can offer the customer a more complete system that does guidance, harvest, water management, leveling and all these other pieces of Connected Farm, whereas if they went with the OEM system they would be missing some pieces. So, yes, the brand new, OEM equipment industry is moving toward supplying that from the factory, but there is significant value in the aftermarket technology.

S&S: At what speed are tractors typically moving in the field?

Martinez: A tractor will drive between five and eight miles per hour. A self-propelled sprayer will sometimes travel up to 25 miles per hour. So, ground is being covered quite quickly and you need pretty good granularity in your logging.

When farmers are doing soil sampling, they might only do that once a month or once every couple of months. That’s when the data starts to lag a bit and that’s where real-time sensors come into play.

S&S: How do you think UAVs are going to impact this industry?

Martinez: The Gatewing UAVs are now part of the Trimble survey group. They are obviously implementing that within their field. There are tons of opportunities and technology with UAVs. Within ag in Trimble we don’t have any implementation for UAVs yet. We can make assumptions and guesses as to what the applications can be, but it’s not something that I would detail for you.

S&S: What is the minimum number of acres for which precision agriculture is cost-effective?

Martinez: I recently conducted some payback estimates on various solutions and found that payback on almost any of Trimble’s solutions ranges from one year to one and a half years. This is from a basic lightbar to the most feature-rich application control system.

S&S: Besides yield monitors and soil moisture sensors, what other kinds of sensors are coming into widespread use?

Martinez: Crop sensors have become increasingly more widespread in agriculture since they help farmers reduce nutrient input costs by eliminating excess application. Trimble’s GreenSeeker crop sensing system can help farmers effectively and precisely manage crop inputs on-the-go. The GreenSeeker system uses optical sensors to measure and quantify the variability of the crop. It then creates a targeted prescription to treat the crop variability. Trimble recently introduced a handheld version of this technology, available for only $495. Its low cost provides farmers with a very economical way to get acquainted with the technology.

Another product to take note of is Trimble WeedSeeker spot spray system, which uses advanced optics to sense whether a weed is present. It’s an effective solution to help efficiently control weeds. It senses whether a weed is present and signals a spray nozzle to deliver a precise amount of chemical—spraying only the weed and not the bare ground.

S&S: Would constant monitoring and additional increases in precision significantly increase these gains, or has precision agriculture already reached the stage of diminishing returns?

Martinez: No, precision agriculture has not reached the stage of diminishing returns. In fact, it continues to expand and provide more and more technologies across farmers’ operations to help them make better decisions. A recent enhancement to Trimble’s Connected Farm solution is a great example of this. The newest feature of Connected Farm provides farmers with reports on the productivity and delay of their field equipment, which gives farmers the ability to analyze the efficiency and productivity of their fleet by providing reports that detail total time spent idling, traveling, speeding, moving, working, and delayed.

 

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