Technology in Biological and Agricultural Engineering: Precision Agriculture

precision agriculture

As with most sciences and really any field today, technology plays a larger role than ever before. One technology completely changing the biological and agricultural engineering field is precision agriculture. Precision ag, as it is also known, is an emerging technique that allows agricultural engineers to understand, analyze and optimize agriculture like never before. Read on as we take a deeper look into precision ag in this month’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) Online Blog.

A brief definition of precision agriculture

The term precision agriculture refers to a collection of techniques used by farmers and agricultural engineers to analyze and understand the condition and needs of crops in real time. Essentially, the precision part of precision ag refers to the ability to make very precise measurements of water stress, growth stage and other conditions and immediately make management decisions based on the data. Such measurements and decisions can be used to reduce environmental impact, increase economic output and provide better crop science.

Precision agriculture can be seen as a four step process: data collection, variable consideration, strategy development and implementation.

During data collection, tools, such as tractors equipped with GPS or aerial devices; satellites equipped with different sensors; or drones are used for imaging and other types of data acquisition.

When analyzing data during the variable consideration stage, agricultural engineers consider several components that can affect the variability for the specific plant attributes across a field. These variables include climate and weather conditions, crop management practices, potential invasive plant species and plant diseases. Other indicators, including soil conditions, can help agricultural engineers understand the constants for the area of interest. These variables help them to check and follow their crops’ conditions.

During strategy development, agricultural engineers compare the collected data with the identified variables of interest, such as biomass or moisture content, and then make educated decisions based on the correlation between the collected data and the crops’ physical parameters. Management decisions can be made on a predictive and preemptive basis to protect crops and avoid potential risks. Other decisions are made on a control basis, which includes reactions to events that have already occurred. In both cases, precision ag enables these decisions to be quickly executed.  

In the last step, the approved strategies are implemented, and new methodologies are determined for future precision agriculture technology to be used.

Precision Ag at NC State

So, what does precision ag have to do with the programs at NC State?

Students in the NC State Online and Distance Education BAE programs can take courses that address precision ag. BAE 535 — Precision Agriculture Technology, and BAE 536 — GIS Applications in Precision Agriculture are two available curriculum courses for both the biological and agricultural engineering Masters Degree or Graduate Certificate. In these courses, students learn about the technology, tactics and methodology being implemented today in precision agriculture.

Research in precision ag at NC State is ongoing. Agricultural machine systems research is taking a look at GPS and remote sensing systems for use in plotting land. Associate Professor & Extension Specialist of BAE and Agricultural Machinery Systems Engineering Gary Roberson and graduate students, including Josh Rudd, are exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—or drones—in agriculture. Part of their research focuses on using UAVs or remote sensing of cotton to more accurately determine plant conditions in the field. Rudd says the hope for their research is “that we will be able to use the spectral data to determine certain chemical application rates and timings” when treating the cotton plants before harvest.

In exploring the use of drones and other types of modern technology for data analysis of fields and crop quality, agricultural engineers seek to improve conditions for maximum output of crops, to incur less environmental impact and to increase economic benefits for farmers and consumers.

Check back each month as we take a look at different aspects of biological and agricultural engineering and learn more about the programs offered at NC State.