A seminar to explore the concept of a ‘connected farm’ through satellite communications revealed some key challenges faced by the agricultural sector. Geoff Ashcroft reports.
Despite recent advances in precision farming hardware and software, there are major incompatibility issues which still need to be resolved if the full benefits of a ‘connected farm’ are to be realised.
That was the message from a recent ‘connected farm workshop’ held by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which aimed to share communications technology and resources from multiple industries including satellite, space and aviation industries, as it seeks to develop a connected farm utopia.
Speaking at the event, Velcourt Farms’ technical director Keith Norman highlighted the challenges faced by the company’s 43 farm managers.
“While we can see, and do enjoy, the benefits precision farming technology offers, there are still major compatibility issues which need to be resolved,” he said. These include incompatibility in control systems between tractors and machinery; incompatibility in file formats; black spots and a lack of 3G and GPS signal in rural areas; sporadic software updates which result in once joined up systems no longer working together; and combine yield data no longer
consistent with harvester types.
“And when it comes to planting across slopes, we often have to drive over seeded areas for example, just to place seed drills in the correct position,” he added. “In such instances, perhaps GPS should be on the seed drills, not the tractors.”
Velcourt’s managers also felt too many systems were commercially closed to protect manufacturers’ own profitability.
“There’s just not enough transparency and interaction between all those developing precision farming systems,” said Mr Norman.
“These issues just become time consuming to resolve, which means we often lose the simplicity and the automation offered by many precision farming systems.”
His ideal system would be one office-based software suite which allows remote management, editing and adjustment, while seamlessly integrating with all control boxes, smart phones and farm office computers.
“All control boxes should recognise and send all telemetry between all machines,” he said. “And an app which displays all field records the moment you step into a field would be a great asset.”
Clive Blacker, of the UKTi Agritech Team and Precision Decisions, believes there is not yet enough joined up thinking in the agricultural industry when it comes to precision farming packages.
“It seems to be cheaper to put in alternative GPS systems rather than develop better compatibility,” he said.
And while the industry had made considerable gains with larger and more productive equipment, the level of data capture was being watered down, he suggested.
“Where the industry was once yield mapping from a combine with a 15-18ft header, we’re now gathering data from 30-35ft widths, so the level of precision has actually deteriorated. This means fewer samples across a field, so the quality of data is much weaker than it was.
“And it is the same with sprayers – those working with 12-metre booms with crop sensors for liquid fertiliser applications will get better data from a sprayer than one using a 36m boom, simply because they are sampling a smaller area.
“Livestock farmers don’t treat their herds as one large animal – each gets individual and bespoke attention as required. Yet the arable sector rounds up plants and treats them on a per field basis.”
Developments such as individual nozzle control or variable rate applications across wide boom sections would be a step in the right direction.
While the concept of a connected farm is wide-ranging, the workshop remained focused on satellite communications to identify challenges faced by the agricultural industry, and share existing connectivity solutions based on satellite technology from outside the industry.
KTN’s Paul Meakin was pleased with the interaction and discussions which took place between different industries, despite the apparent disconnected feel there is with satellite and precision technologies.
“At the moment, farmers are having to carry the costs of failing integration between systems,” he said. “Open standards are needed to allow better communication.
“For the connected farm concept to move forward, industry priorities must include mobile communications, system accuracy and the standards being implemented.”
Though the issue of who would pay for such development remains unanswered.