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Purdue University’s OATS group seeks improved data and collaboration in the ag industry.

August 10, 2021

3 Min Read
multifunctional hydro joystick controller in a combine cab
TOUCH OF A BUTTON: The multifunctional hydro joystick controller powers most of the combine's functions with some simple buttons and motions. These tasks and other jobs continue to become automated as software dominates farm operations. Emily Dougherty

Efficient farming and agricultural decision-making will increasingly depend on usable farm-level data and software. But just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it is simple to figure out. Working through the headaches to get data and systems to work well together is one of the chief aims of a group of engineers and scientists at Purdue University.

The Open Ag Technology and Systems Center at Purdue University, known as OATS, advocates open sharing of code to facilitate development of new digital tools to help improve farm and industry decision-making. The group is particularly interested in the challenge of interoperability, or making systems “play well together” to accomplish practical tasks.

Related: Data on the farm: Glue or gold?

Although many digital tools and systems are publicly available, too often they are not compatible with each other, explains Dennis Buckmaster, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue and a founding member of OATS.

“It would be great to draw a polygon on a map and see what the weather was there, what was planted there, what was sprayed there, along with dates. But farms don’t have a GIS [geographic information systems] expert,” Buckmaster says. “What we want to do is get industry behind open-source solutions for data collection and analysis.”

Leadership for the OATS Center is provided by Buckmaster; James Krogmeier, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Aaron Ault, senior research engineer. All are farmers who understand how the right data and software could enhance decision-making in practical ways.

Buckmaster sees a need for compatible data and systems that can be applied to practical farm management tasks. New software and models can help farmers start with more accurate data, as opposed to methods relying only on a farmer’s memory or recall. Further, by working toward interoperability, different systems will have the ability to mesh and exchange information across platforms, thus creating more ways for farmers to use their data.

Interest picks up

The interest in the open-source concept is gaining traction as OATS hosted more than 200 industry and academic participants in an OATSCON21 virtual conference in March. For Buckmaster, improved industry collaboration and data sharing are the keys to improved systems for farm management.

“We want companies to work together,” he says. “Our process is to identify or develop what works for one, share that and collaborate to make it better; then eventually it may become the standard because it works.”

Looking ahead, every agricultural decision that needs to be made will have some sort of quantitative aspect, according to Buckmaster. To help make these decisions, farmers and others in the agriculture industry can look to software to tackle the quantitative part of every decision.

As Buckmaster explains to his ag systems management students at Purdue, “Of course there are other aspects of decisions in agriculture, like social. However, if your decisions don’t map out quantitatively, then they aren’t a ‘go.’”

Software will be key in helping farmers effectively make decisions for their operations, and for those who enjoy coding and working with data, interoperability and open-source data will present countless opportunities to innovate and learn, he concludes.

Lund is a sophomore in ag communication at Purdue University.

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