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Getting high-tech down on the farm

Professor Scott Shearer (left) discusses an upcoming agriculture research project with graduate student Andrew Klopfenstein at Ohio State's Waterman Farm.Forget 80,000 pound tractors—one day fields could be plowed, planted and harvested by groups of much smaller, unmanned autonomous vehicles that reap data as well as crops. Monitored by workers in a remote control room, data from these sensor-rich machines would be combined with remote-sensed, high-resolution imagery to provide farmers with the status of every plot of soil, seed and plant in the field.

That’s just part of Scott Shearer’s vision of what precision agriculture could bring to farming. But just what is precision agriculture?

“It means doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time,” said Shearer, chair and professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering. “What it boils down to is, we have technology that permits us to do a lot of things that we never thought possible before.”

Traditionally, farming tasks from planting to fertilizing were done according to a predetermined schedule. But with real-time data on weather, soil conditions and crop maturity, farmers can make smarter decisions about when and how to best use resources. Having actionable insights at their fingertips is key to helping farmers increase food production to feed a growing population, use limited resources efficiently and reduce environmental impact.

Precision agriculture research has far-reaching applications, from matching plant genetics to the soil landscape to boosting crop fertility and growth management. Buckeye engineers like Shearer, a three-time Ohio State alumnus, are at the forefront of creating new tools and new ways of applying technology to get farmers the information they need, when they need it.

Known and respected worldwide for his expertise in control systems for site-specific agriculture applications, Shearer leads many of the precision agriculture research efforts at The Ohio State University. He works with colleagues from across the university on research in autonomous multi-vehicle field production systems, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for remote sensing and other areas. Shearer recently received the 2014 PrecisionAg Institute Legacy Award and is a frequent speaker on precision agriculture topics.

“Many universities are involved in precision agriculture,” said David Williams, dean of the College of Engineering. “But we believe our unique combination of expertise—in food, agricultural and biological engineering; unmanned aerial systems; geodetic engineering and data analytics —is what differentiates our investment in the area, and ultimately the impact we’ll have on global food production and security.”

Shearer and his team are currently working with industry and other research partners in the areas of soil compaction and seed emergence. One of the reasons smaller, autonomous farm machines are so appealing is their potential to reduce soil compaction and thus increase crop yields. Hefty modern agriculture machinery are compacting the soil at a greater depth than ever before, Shearer said—up to 35-36 inches deep in some cases. And that affects plant growth and yields.

Scott ShearerScott Shearer, world-renowned professor and chair of food, agricultural and biological engineering, leads many of Ohio State’s precision agriculture research efforts.

“When we look at mitigating some of the problems associated with soil tilth and compaction, it’s very difficult to do because we don’t typically till three-foot deep,” he said. “So we’re very sensitive to equipment size. One of the game-changers in that area could be fully autonomous equipment.”

Ohio State researchers—in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force and Dayton-area engineering consulting firm Wolpert—are looking at strategies for getting all plants to emerge from seeds within a 24-hour window. By coupling high-resolution imagery with agriculture technology, researchers are able to map the location of every seed in the ground and study the emergence of plants. 

“We’re learning that there is a lot of plant-to-plant variation and are trying to figure out why that occurs,” explained Shearer. “Some people say that if you plant two seeds side-by-side and one of those seeds emerges 48-72 hours later it actually becomes a weed that takes nutrients and resources away from the adjacent corn plant.”

Big ag data 

Today’s data-intensive agricultural environment presents another challenge: how to aggregate and analyze all that data in a way that enables farmers to quickly extract the information needed to make better decisions. There’s data from machine-based sensors—which alone generate about one half a kilobyte of data per corn plant per year— as well as remote-sensed, high-resolution field imagery from tools like manned and unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Researchers at Ohio State are embracing the agricultural dataspace as much as anyone nationwide, Shearer said. The university expanded its expertise with the recent hire of Associate Professor John Fulton, a former Auburn University faculty member who is nationally recognized for his work in big ag data. 

Shearer’s vision includes establishing an agriculture data co-operative at Ohio State, the impact of which could extend well beyond U.S. borders. In partnership with major equipment manufacturers, software and precision agriculture component suppliers and farmers worldwide, the co-op would provide the opportunity to aggregate agriculture data and, with permission from data owners, use it for research. 

“Many agriculture producers are skeptical about sharing their data with large corporations,” Shearer said. “I think there is an opportunity for land grant institutions, especially Ohio State University, to partner with other institutions and act as an honest broker of the data.”

As part of a strategic UAS partnership with Sinclair Community College, Ohio State is working to further research opportunities at the intersection of data analytics and unmanned aerial systems, train students for UAS careers, and expand upon existing UAS airspace and vehicle resources. 

Coming soon to nearby fields

Research in precision agriculture has been ongoing since the mid-90s and is already paying dividends. One advance—the ability to match seed variety to local growing conditions—will be showing up in fields beginning with the 2015 cropping season. Most of U.S. agriculture uses just one hybrid seed variety per field. That will change next year as fields transition to a polyculture environment that matches a hybrids’ unique characteristics to the needs of each specific location. A drought-tolerant hybrid might be planted on an eroded hillside, for example, while a variety that yields well under favorable conditions might be used at the base of a hill containing nutrient-rich eroded topsoil.

“We’re seeing that by changing hybrids as you move across the field you can substantially increase production in that field,” Shearer said. “In the future, we’ll be using the same amount of resources, but we will have a much better yield because we’ll be doing a much better job of matching the genetics of the plant with the soil landscape position.” 


Written by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,