Agro-veillance: Using satelites and drones for precision crop maintenence

Agricultural Tree Grading Maps Photo:

The landscape architecture blog Pruned has a fascinating overview of using unmanned drones and satellites to produce maps which reveal terrific amounts of data for analyzing the relative health of crops. Being able to detect the relative difference in biomass in an orchard would allow the high-tech farmer to pinpoint water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to only the trees that need them, rather than flooding and dusting the entire orchard.

Once you are able to determine the relative health of each tree in the orchard, it is a natural leap to imagine a grid of capillary tubing delivering the precise amounts of nutrients and water required to maintain each tree at peak production. What about pesticides? Well, just use a little larger tube and shoot a stream of ladybugs at the affected tree! Pruned on Agro-veillance

(Mister Jalopy is a guest blogger!)


  1. You might think so, Ugly Canuck, but if anything food production should be decentralized and made more low tech. One of the most basic, natural things in the world is growing food, people have been doing it successfully for a very long time. Surely we can all think of other areas where technology seems like a great idea but in the end it caused more problem than we bargained for. I have a real problem with that intimate knowledge of plant health being taken over by computer imagery.

  2. This is what GIS (Geographic Information Systems or Science) was designed for. The largest GIS company in the world, Environmental Systems Research Institute – ESRI – got it’s start as a consulting company to agricultural interests. Satellites have been providing this kind of information for years.

  3. Batchild, you are wrong. Less water, fertilizer, and pesticide is good. It leads to less pollution, more habitat for wildlife, and cleaner water. Making agriculture more low tech means more land in agricultural production, which means more pesticides, fertilizer, and fuel to drive the tractor around all that extra land and less land for wildlife. Organic farms typically take 4 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of food as a modern farm. Organic farms still use pesticides they are just “natural” killers the way snake venom is natural. This is simply another tool in the farmers arsenal to allow him/her a vantage point that he didn’t have before. You still have a human who understands the land making the decisions.

  4. @1 and @2:

    I think you’re both right. Farming dependent on high-technology seems like a bad idea. But what if we had something like a daterape drug-testing coaster for farms–a strip of paper that could be made at 1000s per dollar. It would indicate whether a location was suitable for what type of crop, and not have to be concerned with downed power grids and the like.

  5. Oh, I remember when I was young and naive, in the late 80s, and thought this is why agribusiness companies like ADM were doing good in the world. Automated precision farming so more people could be engineers and astronauts, and leave the stupid boring labor of farming up to the robots. (Only later did I learn about agribusiness subsidies and the WTO agreement on agriculture.)

    I think this was also part of the background story in Battle Angel Alita.

  6. Ha. Finally a topic where I can be BoingBoing cooler-than-thou by virtue of growing up in rural Indiana.

    This pinpointing is great, let me tell you, for any farmer larger than the Five Acres and Independence model (and actually, for that model, too). Farmers already use this kind of mapping, but it’s damned expensive. Back in the late 80’s I was developing software for a GPS-guided differential applicator to fine-tune pesticide and fertilizer application based on the tractor’s position in the field — and that was for corn and beans, not the most profit-per-acre-intensive crops out there by any means!

    But the map itself was made by people coming out from Purdue and sampling each field by hand. Tedious and experimental at best; obviously it would have been farmed out (ha) to the county ag extensions, but still. Pretty static data, maybe once a year at most.

    But this? Wow! As long as you can get your information from foliage color and probably infrared characteristics — you’re gold! Saves a lot of money and saves a lot of crap running off into the water and poisoning the water table.

    As to the capillary system — Mr. J, you’re from California, right? That might work for trees. I’m not sure it would pay off for annual crops. (Of course, with economies of scale, I might be wrong — and darn if it doesn’t sound cool!)

    Reminds me of the time a cousin from Florida tried to tell me that corn yield would be better if we irrigated (after all, it works for orange trees).

    Well. Maybe. And maybe we could get another dollar an acre out of it… :-)

  7. I am from California and the basis of my agricultural wondering is often orchard based – from the almonds of the Central Valley to the orange groves of the 126. I picture a fiber optic-like cable that is run down a row of trees with color coded capillary pipes that administer the correct nutrients to each addressable tree. OR! WAIT A SECOND! Here is the superior crackpot idea!

    Each tree is independently addressable with a TREE IP. At the base of each tree, there is a receiver and delivery spike that is driven into the earth to root depth. Inside, ten tiny solenoids and each one is connected to ten capillary tubes that run down the rows like a fiber backbone. The tubes are filled with nutrients, water, pesticide, herbicide, organic pesticides and organic herbicides. The solenoids are opened according to the sat imaged map that determines a likely course for tree health. This elixir is administer to the roots via the delivery spike.

    But, what about the ladybug delivery? Perhaps pigeons can be trained to disperse.

  8. TAKUAN:

    No need to grow that pot indoors in California’s basically legal there. Indeed, some brands of “medicinal” marijuana bill themselves as being all natural and grown outdoors.

    So can this tell us which grower will have the most potent “Maui Wowie” crop?

  9. it seems to me that a system like this would still have you out in the field a lot, only your rounds could be much more precise and purposeful. instead of going the GMO route to try to beat the system on a broad scale, or giving all crops treatments whether healthy or not, you can just apply what is needed to those in need. what’s more, with the data sets this would yield and the expierience gained from visiting problem areas, you could potentially gain valuable farming experience much faster than before. if anything, it’s a more intimate connection to your fields, not less.

    i fail to see why this would be a bad idea.

  10. One useful thing would be if it lets you pinpoint outbreaks of pests/weeds/disease earlier than otherwise, so you can get to them while they are smaller – nip them in the bud, as it were. Doing the smallest outbreaks first can save a lot of the costs (both economic and environmental).

    @batchild #2, modern farming may have its downsides, but it’s basically eliminated famine. What famine remains is usually because the shooting is so heavy that the Red Cross fears to go in, sometimes due to government infelicities (the country’s bankrupt or the glorious party denies the stark reality). At the same time, we’ve reduced the number of people it takes from the vast majority of the population to a few percent. If you advocate reversing all this, be mindful of the picture.

  11. #2: I almost agree with you, but not quite. I think agriculture should be made more decentralised, and low impact. However, I do think that the application of the right technologies can facilitates that.

    Technology is not intrinsically evil or wrong, although the wrong use of technology has put us in a potentially very hazardous situation globally today.

    Also, I maintain the view that this is merely augmenting the farmer’s knowledge of plant health, not replacing it. In a large orchard there is no way the farmer would have the time to inspect each tree individually, and this can facilitate that, as well as reduce the impact of his farming.

    As for growing food being “one of the most basic, natural things in the world”, read Jared Diamond’s essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” for some perspective.

    And on another note, moving back to pre-green-revolution agriculture would also bring us back to widespread famine and starvation.

    The solution is smarter, cleaner technology, not getting rid of technology altogether.

  12. Within the past fortnight I have seen a documentary or extended news item on UK TV which included a piece on exactly this topic, with film of a French farmer using this technology to map a field of maize, etc and determine inputs. Being old and forgetful I cannot recall which programme. Might have been BBC Countryfile in which case it would be on iPlayer – but the last two programme summaries do not include any such description so probably it wasn’t. If I were at home I’d check my Digiguide to look at past TV schedules (Digiguide is brilliant!) but I’m not and I won’t be for 5 days. Maybe someone else will know what it was and if video of it is anywhere on the Youtertubes or Gogglebox.

  13. actually, if I’d read the item in full first and linked to the BBC news site I’d be able to say a) it wasn’t this story I saw and b) it was satellite imageey not unmanned drones the French farmer was using, linked to GIS/GPS and tractor sprays etc.

  14. “Organic farms typically take 4 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of food as a modern farm.”

    This is a pretty worn out myth. Lower productivity does not really follow directly from generic organic practices. What is the difference between organic and non-organic that would somehow lower crop density?

    The only main valid generalization you can make IMHO between organic and nonorganic [a well established farm btw, not a random acre of new ground plowed up for the test] is that there is simply a tradeoff is between purchased inputs (non-organic) and man-hours of maintainence. Whether the advantage goes to one or the other depends entirely on economic context.

    A remote sensing GIS like this would actually be a benefit to organic farming, since it would allow you to use your time/labor more efficiently.

    “Organic farms still use pesticides they are just “natural” killers the way snake venom is natural.”

    OK, so what? (Unless there are organic farms using snake venom as pesticides…??) Is there something wrong with killing pests that are eating your crops?

  15. Here at the Fifth Annual California Climate Change [Research] Conference in Sacramento, CA, we’re seeing lots of similar tools, including presentations/poster sessions on:

    Tune in next week for poster session links and archived video; it will be streaming today starting shortly. I co-presented a poster session on climate impacts of Sustainable Communities (cohousing and ecovillages)

    P.S. I love that BB now automatically tags links in comments with rel=”nofollow”; that way nobody can accuse me of SEO gaming.

  16. OK, so what? (Unless there are organic farms using snake venom as pesticides…??) Is there something wrong with killing pests that are eating your crops?

    Actually, I am just making a point for those out there that think that organic means no pesticides. I am a landscape architect and I run into people all the time that think that organic means that they never spray anything. That everything organic farmers do is perfectly safe for the environment. When I tell them they spray pesticides they look at be with complete disbelief. I have found that using the analogy of snake venom helps them understand that there are organic poisons out there. I am also an avid gardener, and boy I have no problem spraying if absolutely necessary. I try to stick with sprays that only target creatures sucking on the plants so that I don’t harm my beneficial populations that much, but if I have to use pyrethrum I use it, especially on ornamentals.

    As far as crop density, the yields per acre are lower. Each plant yields less. I’m sorry but this is not a myth but a very well documented fact. I even asked my friends (professors not students)over in the ag department to confirm.

  17. I spent a summer driving a combine in the late 90’s and even then they had a great system that linked the combine to GPS. The hopper measured Bushels per Minute and the data would be tagged by location so you could analyze a field and match it up with soil samples, etc. Farm tech is a lot of fun and driving a combine was like being in a tank, I loved every second of it.

  18. I just wanted to note that I am not against organic farming or strictly for industrialized agriculture practices. I just don’t like dogmatic adherence to low-tech agriculture. I think that this technology can help all farmers organic and non-organic alike.

    Also, I did generalize on the 4 to 1 production ratio, so don’t jump down my throat about that either.

  19. Is there something wrong with killing pests that are eating your crops?

    I suspect what’s wrong is selecting your pesticide based on whether it’s organic rather than based on some sort of rational evaluation of its positives and negatives.

    It’s like only eating food that’s orange; sure, some pretty healthy things are orange (carrots), but so is a lot of junk (cheetos, bricks).

  20. Three issues with the conventional argument for conventional agriculture:

    One, the problem with synthetic* pesticides is often that they aren’t broken down — because nothing has evolved to do so, and because we put a lot of mining/chemistry energy into them so they’re hard to break. Great on the crop, but they tend to bioaccumulate.

    Two, while conventional agriculture has higher yield, it often doesn’t have higher output. Yield measures the single most important crop; output measures the total caloric (or food+fiber+fuel) output. It is characteristic of organic, or traditional, or low-input systems to produce several related things (e.g., a nitrogen-fixer and a nitrogen-user — beans & corn). Obviously the yield could be lower in this system even if the land is producing more food per acre. YAMV, and yield is the important thing for a lot of commodities-market crops, but it isn’t the best measure for starvation vs nonstarvation… which is why pocket gardens are so important in a lot of market-poor places.

    Three, if we’re all really unlucky, the Green Revolution depended way more on cheap energy (water, fertilizer, transhipping) and fossil water (wells) than we/they realized at the time. There were carrot farms in the Mojave until the aquifer ran out. *Not* evidence that conventional ag is the food of the future…

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