Now Reading: Sensors and Connecting the Field

Sensors and Connecting the Field

by Sam Eathington, Chief Scientist of The Climate Corporation

October 24, 2016

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Growing up on a grain and livestock farm in west central Illinois, I have more memories than I can count of my dad sitting at the kitchen table or working in our farm shop wondering what might be at play in our fields, what the weather would bring and how it would impact our farm.

It can be a powerless feeling to be so dependent on the land and environment, placing so much trust in them to deliver your livelihood, but having essentially no insight into what’s going on with the plant or below the ground’s surface.

As a kid, I had a lot of unanswered questions. So many in fact, that I grew up to become a scientist and focused my work on plant breeding and genetics. It’s been a time of great advancement with seed companies developing more robust, better performing seed products every year.

But we all know that even the best seed only gets you so far. Interactions in the soil, the environment and the luck of the draw with weather still influence a significant portion of crop performance. That’s actually why I joined The Climate Corporation.

My whole life I’ve been captivated by how science and innovation can help de-risk agriculture for farmers, and how optimizing farming to improve the environment can result in the best, most predictable harvests with the fewest natural resources.

After more than two decades in the agriculture business, I’ve come to appreciate a thing or two. Most notably, I have great respect for the holistic system. It’s never just the seed, just the weather, just the inputs . . .it’s everything.

But until recently, we’ve not been able to measure much in real-time in the field . . . let alone measure “everything.” Looking back, who could have imagined the critical role that digital agriculture and sensor technology would play in farming’s present and future?

The Rise of Digital Agriculture

We’ve seen an explosion in the digital agriculture field over the last few years – and it’s ushered in a slew of tools and approaches for farmers to better manage their operations. Our own Climate FieldViewTM platform is helping many farmers, like my family, optimize resources and maximize yield by bringing them customized, field-level insights through each stage of the growing season. And with nitrogen management tools in Climate FieldView, we’re offering farmers unprecedented insight into nitrogen availability and soil dynamics in their fields.

With all these new data and tools, newcomers like data scientists have joined the cause wanting to help solve agriculture’s greatest challenges. But just as new insights and innovations are starting to take the industry by storm, the next horizon of technological advancements in farming are starting to emerge: sensors.

The Sensor Revolution

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In-Field Sensor Prototype

Sensors are not new in farming. We’ve had connected cabs and combines for years, and hardware such as the Climate FieldViewTM Drive offers farmers new levels of real-time insights. While our equipment has been advancing, far fewer advancements have allowed for physical data measurements in the field. You still have your rain gauge. You still have labor-intensive soil tests. You still don’t know exactly what’s going on below the surface following your recent nitrogen application.

But what if your field could transform into a field connected with a sensor network that could speak to you? One where you have a network of sensors taking real-time measurements on what’s actually going on – with your crops and in the soil. And what if that data was automatically cross-referenced with your other field data to offer you insights and watch-outs for potential performance issues to help you achieve your best possible harvest?

I’m excited about all of this because at The Climate Corporation, we’re developing the world’s first, in-field sensor network for agriculture. The network combines the power of data science and connectivity with industry-leading advancements in sensor technology. Using real-time sensors to measure the physical world will help us create more predictive and accurate models and tools that assist farmers in making better decisions to get the absolute most out of every acre.

Currently in our R&D program, the sensor network is allowing us to collect and crunch together more than 250 data layers at our Climate Research Farms. It’s powerful stuff and sensors are one of the keys to unlocking our vision of a unified ag ecosystem.  

While we’re working on our own sensors measuring soil nitrate, moisture, temperature, precipitation and more, we’re also interested in fostering innovation – and that’s why we’ve invited developers across the board to access our platform.

From Connected Cab to Connecting the Field

Innovation in ag has greatly impacted my family and many farmers across the country and around the world. My grandfather saw corn transform from an open-pollinated crop to a hybrid. He experienced the revolution of mechanization on farming. And my dad’s generation saw corn yields break 100 bu/acre for the first time in history.  

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As this new wave of digital ag innovation sweeps across the industry, farmers will begin to enjoy the real-time, field-specific insights we’ve been imagining.

No more sitting at the table wringing your hands over what the weather or soil might bring to – or rob from – fall harvest. The future of ag is now – and in the coming years we’ll see great advancements on farms across the country.

Thinking back to those moments in my family’s kitchen watching the storm front roll in with my dad, I know neither of us could have predicted how far technology would come in just a few short decades.  

There’s so much potential on the horizon for agriculture. Let’s discover it together.

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