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  • Remote sensing and network engineering boost farm productivity
  • Massive amounts of data present challenges to digital infrastructure  
  • Precision agriculture enhances environmental sustainability

The farmer wakes up at the crack of dawn. Ready to start his day, he showers, makes a pot of coffee, slips into a pair of overalls and shuffles over to his computer.

He clicks through imagery of his livestock, calculates how much pesticides his crops need, and flips through irrigation models to determine how he can conserve as much water as possible. Later, he closes his laptop and goes to bed, successfully completing a day’s work without getting dirt on his overalls.

Tools of the trade. John Nowatzki explains the value offered by precision agriculture and remote sensing tools. Courtesy TEDxtalks, North Dakota State University. (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

This futuristic scenario is fast becoming a reality thanks to precision agriculture, which seeks to increase farming efficiency by applying GPS and computer applications to agricultural practices.

“Crop scientists want the computer to make decisions as a farmer is going into the field,” says John Nowatzki, agricultural machines specialist at North Dakota State University. “Like what crops to plant, what rate to plant them, and the amount of fertilizer and chemical pesticides to use.”

Flying high 

Precision agriculture could be what a farmer with limited time and resources needs to boost productivity.

From crop counting, to yield prediction, to herbicide and fertilizer application, to livestock management, these tools can increase a farmer's reach and maximize yield.

From precision agriculture to precision medicine, Internet2 facilitates big data and analytics collaboration, accelerating the research innovations that advance scientific discovery and improve the human experience. ~ Florence D. Hudson

Remote sensing tools like unmanned aerial vehicles can fly above farmland and assess livestock for a farmer. This saves the grower a trip into his pasture to track each of his animals one by one. These UAVs can record data like an animal’s temperature, metabolism, digestive issues and its physical location individually.

“We think of animals as maybe being in a small area,” Nowatzki says. “But in the west and in the central plains, pastures for cattle and sheep might be five miles square. The time it takes to go out and check animals might be a whole day, rather than sending a drone out autonomously and checking the information when you have time.”<strong> Cloud farming. </strong>Computerized farm equipment aids a farmer's work by capturing data from a field and transfering it to the internet in real time. Large datasets can pose a challenge to the analysis and application of these data-driven insights. Courtesy John Nowatzki.

However, tracking livestock using this method produces a massive amount of data.

According to Nowatzki’s research, he and his colleagues flew over more than 100,000 acres in their experiment, creating over two terabytes of data each time they flew. One pass of a single field can create at least half a terabyte of data.

“Being able to transfer that data is a big issue,” Nowatzki says. “Most people that are using drones are using small ones. They’re saving that information on a card on the drone, landing it, physically removing it, and transferring it to their computer.”

Data down on the farm

Speeding data transfer is where Internet2 steps in. Internet2 supports the physical infrastructure behind projects such as the Midwest Big Data Hub that allows large data sets to be shared via research and education networks.

“Internet2 and networking partners enable researcher and practitioner data sharing and bring value from many Internet of Things applications,” says Florence D. Hudson, senior vice president and chief innovation officer with Internet2. 

“Our team connects farmers in the heartland to researchers around the world, increases farmer productivity, and helps to feed the world.” 

Nowatzki has been collaborating with one company, Elbit Systems of America, to electronically move information from a data source to a cloud service, making the information quickly and easily accessible for a farmer. Nowatzki’s goal is to transfer the data from the source to the farmer within just 48 hours.

In addition to maximizing farming efficiency, precision agriculture also aims to reduce farming’s environmental impact. US pesticide use totaled over 1.1 billion pounds in 2011 and 2012, and precision agriculture can help farmers ensure they are used responsibly and efficiently.<strong>Outstanding in their field. </strong> The world's population has tripled in our lifetime, while arable land has decreased at a rate of one million acres per year. Precision agriculture uses remote sensing tools to enable farmers to boost their productivity. Courtesy John Nowatzki.

“If you’re in an environmentally sensitive area,” Nowatzki says, “you can put a boundary there, making sure the insecticide shuts off as you go over that area automatically. Protecting the environment is another big application precision agriculture offers.”

While we are not in the age where farming can be done completely remotely, guaranteeing that farming practices are done as efficiently as possible without leaving the house, remote sensing tools and research and education networks like Internet2 are swiftly bringing us to the day where it is possible.

The Midwest Big Data Hub is supported by the National Science Foundation, and is a partnership of the University of MichiganIowa State UniversityIndiana University, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read more about the Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs in our 2015 feature article.

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