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Corn+Soybean Digest

On The Fast Track

Much of the success in using precision farming practices hinges on gathering crop and pest information and then reacting to it with lightning speed. Making decisions too slowly or too late often undermines any chance of success.

For farmers, crop consultants and others involved with precision farming, it's this lag time — essentially the speed you can send or receive information from aerial images, field application or yield maps — that's been a challenge.

The obstacle arises from cases where aerial and other field map images used in precision agriculture require huge data files. Trying to manage and transfer these big files between farmers and crop consultants becomes cumbersome and inefficient.

For many farmers, the situation is further complicated by the fact that today's high-speed Internet access (cable or DSL) isn't an option in rural areas. Trying to transmit multi-megabyte size image files with a standard telephone modem is impractical, time consuming and often increases the chances of errors during transmission.

But don't despair; there is a solution in the offing.

A new, state-of-the-art system called “Wireless Local Area Networking” — or WLAN, for short — is being developed to offer high-speed Internet access via a fixed satellite system.

This new system will make it possible to transport massive amounts of electronic bytes housed in multi-spectral field maps and other images at rapid speeds. So when you or your crop consultant really need the information, it's there — now — in real time. What used to take hours or days to receive may just take only minutes.

Developed by a team of researchers with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at Mississippi State, the system uses some off-the-shelf hardware and software as well as equipment and services through Starband Communications, Inc., and the Dish Network, Inc., fixed satellite system.

Internet access via satellite is also available from Direct TV, Inc., (called DirecWay) that offers comparable pricing and speeds available for both residential and commercial use.

“This equipment provides practical ways to rapidly deliver processed images and variable-rate application maps from anywhere in the world via the Internet to farmers' computer systems,” says James McKinion of the USDA-ARS Genetics and Precision Agriculture Research Unit at Mississippi State.

“This also means that on-farm site data, such as cultural practices, application rate maps, yield monitor information and other field observations, can be swiftly sent to image analysts, crop consultants or other precision ag specialists via the Internet,” he says. “We've created faster traveling speeds on the information highway for precision agriculture.”

This technology will eliminate many of the bottlenecks that now hinder the quick and orderly back-and-forth transfer of multi-spectral image gathering, mapping and analyzing functions of precision agriculture, McKinion says.

“Developing planting density maps or application maps for applying herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and crop growth regulators can now be done faster, easier and more accurately with this new system,” he says.

The ability to rapidly process multi-spectral images and then convert them into variable-application maps makes a tremendous difference in insect control since the window of opportunity for a successful outcome is often measured in hours — not days.

For example, Jeff Willers, a USDA entomologist and co-researcher on the WLAN project, used the wireless network technology combined with multi-spectral maps and variable application maps to test the effective control of cotton insects.

With the ability to respond rapidly — within minutes in this case — Willers was able to apply an insecticide with pinpoint accuracy and completely avoid conventional blanket spray applications. Consequently, he reduced the amount of insecticides needed by more than 60%.

Combined with other hardware, the WLAN system also opens the door to more possibilities, such as automating image analysis. A farmer could send an image to a remote location where it is analyzed and then sent back quickly with noted recommendations.

In addition, the WLAN system could help establish a network that links key parts of a farmer's operations and machinery into a fully integrated system. Information would truly be at the farmer's fingertips — even when farm equipment is operating in the field.

According to McKinion, the capabilities of using a WLAN system is also being tested with the help of Paul Good and his son-in-law, Dale Weaver, who grow cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat on more than 1,500 acres in Noxubee County, MS.

Here, a satellite dish and two-way Low Noise Block Converter (LNB, for short — the part of the dish that captures the digital signal from the satellite) were installed along with a transceiver box connected to the computer via a USB port.

“We're proud to be involved in testing this new and exciting system,” says Good. “But like any new technology, we realized early on that making progress is closely linked to a learning curve that involves making changes, working the bugs out and fine tuning things — that just comes with the turf.

“While we're still on a learning curve with using this new system on our farm. There's no question that it will positively impact the management strategies of precision agriculture in the near future,” he says. “This new system will eventually allow us to quickly and intelligently respond to crop and field variations and to apply insecticides or fertilizers or growth regulators with greater pinpoint accuracy. We'll also be able to monitor crop growth and track yield data in a very comprehensive and timely manner.”

According to Weaver, part of the WLAN system was used last year to make more precise lime and chicken litter applications in certain areas of cotton fields by using yield maps generated by a monitor on the cotton picker.

The yield map data was stored on the farm's computer/server system and then relayed to a mobile computer on the tractor and spreader to target those areas in the fields that needed fertilizer applications.

“Last year we also used aerial, multi-spectral image maps along with recommendations from our crop consultant to determine the specific areas of our cotton fields that needed insecticide applications and at what rates,” says Weaver.

“In this case, I roughly estimated that we reduced our insecticide use about 50%,” he says. “Obviously, yearly field conditions and insect populations may affect the final results. However, the insecticide use reduction experienced last year was significant. It saved us money and it was good for the environment.”

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