Our modern world runs on satellite data. 1,305 active satellites currently orbit the Earth.

Satellites are used for everything from broadcasting television to cross country communication. But satellites are important to our daily lives in a way we may not realise; satellites bring us food.

Not directly, of course, but on pastures green around the world, farmers are using satellites to maximise their efficiency, and meet the increasing demand for fruit and vegetables from a growing population.

Satellite technology is not the only thing farmers are using to keep up with modern demand. Drones and sensors are also used to gather specific information about fields and crops in a system called ‘precision agriculture’. But what is precision agriculture? And how does farming, perhaps the oldest profession of all time, gel with some of our newest technology, from satellites to drones and sensors?

Agriculture technology

What is ‘precision agriculture’?

‘Precision agriculture’ is the name given to any kind of farming that uses certain kinds of technological assistance. For example, many agricultural companies are obtaining better insights into their land through working with high resolution aerial imagery from space. Satellite data providers with agricultural applications can deliver results that aid the classification of crop types and assessment of crop condition and health.

Other devices used in precision agriculture include tiny sensors which are placed around the fields or mounted on tractors. These sensors, working in tandem with high resolution images, can tell farmers everything they need to know about a field’s soil: from fertility and temperature, to dampness and age.

Among other goods, the insights gained are responsible for creating better wine. This is due to the fact that they allow enhanced analysis of terroir. Terroir refers to the set of environmental factors affecting a grape’s character: it’s the reason why grapes that grow on the Right and Left Banks of Bordeaux are completely different in flavour.

How precision agriculture increases efficiency

One of the biggest benefits of precision farming is the ability to break up large fields into small sections and manage them as if they are a group of small fields. The Soil Science Society of America says this might more accurately be called “site-specific agriculture.”

Site-specific agriculture has innumerable advantages over the big field approach. Though it may be surprising, the soil can vary wildly between different areas of a single field. By looking at sections of a field as specific sites, farmers can monitor the way crops grow in different areas, and adjust their planting accordingly. If the soil in one area of a field is better at holding water, farmers can plant a higher concentration of crops there. Farmers can tailor their plant choice to suit the smaller fields they are now working with.

The sensor and satellite combination can also predict the weather in a more accurate and specific way than a national meteorology office. This in itself increases efficiency, allowing farmers to apply the correct levels of nutrients, water and seed to appropriate areas, as needed in the weather circumstances. Waste, often the byproduct of inefficient crop planting, is hugely reduced when precision farming is practiced.

Precision techniques can also increase efficiency at the distribution level. According to IBM, whose research division has forayed into the field of precision agriculture, using these sensors and cameras to predict the weather can help plan an effective route or time for delivery.

Automated agriculture: will robots be the farmers of the future?

With efficient farming reliant on all this technology, you would be forgiven for thinking it may soon enough be time for farmers to hang up their hats and let robots do the work. This may even already be closer to reality than you had thought.

Farm equipment company John Deere have been providing self-driving tractors to farmers for 15 years, causing the firm’s technology head, John Teeple, to ‘chuckle’ at all the fuss over Google’s main road alternative. However, these self-driving tractors do need to be manned by a farmer, for safety reasons. John Teeple told CBS this allows busy farmers to focus on the planning aspect of their work, often using the precision tools mentioned previously. A fully driverless tractor, says Teeple, is more than a decade away.

Without a completely driverless tractor, it would be impossible for a farm to be fully automatic. But perhaps in the future, automated tractors could download information from their sensors, surrounding drones, and satellites, and run an efficient farm without the need for human input. An exciting prospect in some ways, but not for those working in agriculture. Still, farmers can take comfort in the fact that their knowledge and skill is still required today, even with the technological developments we have seen so far. Even though we can accumulate all this information with machines, it still takes a human brain to put it all together.