Online Companion: Precision Agriculture

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History of Precision Agriculture

First, a little bit of past history on adoption of technology within agriculture. It is interesting to note that major changes in agricultural technology have often been treated with derision and controversy. The change from horses to tractors was difficult for many people. Milk from a dairy farm was stored and transported in cans for many years. When bulk tanks were introduced, people were sure that the quality of milk would suffer. Moving from single cross corn seed to hybrid seed was controversial as some people argued that we were playing God with plants. Likewise, with precision agriculture we are facing a major shift in technology. As with many of the previously stated technology shifts, even the techniques and tools changed, the processes and expected outcomes remained the same.


Making the switch from horses pulling wagons to tractors pulling wagons followed the same process of adoption.

The fundamental concept of precision agriculture, collecting data and making decisions based on that data, has been around for many years. This was easier to do without technology on small plots. But as the size of farms grew, this no longer was possible. The larger farms require new techniques and tools. These news tools have been developed over time. The Geographic Information System (GIS) was probably the first precision farming tool developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, GIS was used by research institutions, though it was still impractical for most commercial or educational uses. GIS provides the analysis tools needed for precision farming, but few people considered that as a possibility at the time.


Recording data on paper forms does not provide the spatial reference needed for precision farming. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service)

Several different Intelligent Devices and Implement (IDI) components were developed in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably the Yield Monitor or on-the-go nitrogen tester. These concepts were data collectors without a method of spatially recognizing the data.


The original Ag Leader was used for several years without GPS or creating spatial data.

Then the most important tool to tie all these together was the Global Positioning System (GPS). With enough NAVSTAR satellites available in late 1980s and early 1990s, civilian operators were able to use GPS receivers (with attention to mission planning to determine at what times of the day enough satellites would be available) to determine location.


Rockwell was active in the GPS market with GPS receivers and an agricultural system.

With these tools, early agricultural innovators started to put together the concepts of spatially locating various field conditions and characteristics for the purpose of analyzing sustainable decisions, which is now precision farming.


Though many of the tools for precision agriculture were developed over many years, the 1990s saw many new technologies develop.



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