How Can Sensor Technologies and Precision Farming Improve Agriculture?

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The use of precise, granular data collected via remote and ground sensors has tremendous potential to improve agriculture outcomes. In the industrialized world the most mature aspects of the application of these tools tend to be linked with GPS-based crop monitoring such as that used by the Climate Corporation which gives farmers access to real-time, field-level data.
However, the application of these tools in a developing context is still being explored. This post details the outcome of a USAID convening exploring the the potential for precision agriculture technologies in developing countries.
Working with 10 other federal agencies, USAID leads Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Many of Feed the Future’s 19 focus countries are grappling with a variety of challenges impacting agricultural production, including resource scarcity and changing environmental conditions as a result of climate change.
In dealing with these challenges, the use of new technologies for precision farming promises a variety of benefits including:

  • Gathering Specific, Real-Time Information: Data gathered from ground sensors, remote sensors, high-resolution satellite data and other tools will better equip smallholder farmers, extension workers and other stakeholders with specific, updated information about their crops to help improve local productivity.
  • Conserving Resources: Improved data and information will lead to optimizing farming inputs and the time spent by agricultural extension workers and other actors on the ground, ultimately contributing to better use of resources and costs savings.
  • Enabling Other Products and Services: Finally, good data is needed in order for the private sector and other intermediaries to create decision-making tools that can benefit smallholder farmers including financial and insurance products.

Over a productive one and a half days in June 2016, USAID — uniquely positioned as a donor organization to bring together actors across the public and private sectors — convened a workshop including innovators who have developed sensors, large Silicon Valley companies including Cisco and Facebook, funders and NGOs including the Gates Foundation and One Acre Fund, and academics from Berkeley, Stanford and UC Davis.
Four Insights on Sensors4Ag
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  • “Technology is the easy part”: Many sensor-enabled precision agriculture technologies already exist, ranging from weather stations and dedicated moisture sensors to spectrometers and remote sensing tools. For many of these applications, the market is already driving the physical technology to become better and cheaper. Therefore, the focus of the community of practice should not be on developing new technologies, but instead on determining how existing technologies can be applied to agriculture in developing markets.
  • Design with the local context in mind: In applying these technologies, and in keeping with the spirit of the Principles for Digital Development, understanding the local conditions is key. How sensors are packaged, how the data is transmitted, the user experience, and how often sensors need to be re-charged or replaced, are all key factors in determining their success — and must be uniquely adapted to the specific local context, whether it’s honing in on a particular region, a particular crop, or a market need. These processes are often far more complex than the technology itself.
  • Complex data transmission needs: Agricultural sensors are collecting a significant amount of data, but particularly when applied in the developing world, often must operate in low-connectivity environments. Therefore, they will require low-power and long-range solutions to ensure that data continue to be transmitted effectively and at low cost.
  • Data need to be interoperable: Agricultural data are being collected simultaneously through satellites, weather stations and ground sensors. Yet these systems don’t speak to one another and there is no centralized way to layer data. For the data to be truly helpful in decision making, technology providers need to work toward interoperability and find productive ways to integrate the data.

Ultimately, the data provided have the potential to help multiple audiences–the extension worker, the bank that is developing the insurance product, and/or the farmer themselves–make better decisions. Therefore, innovators, technology providers, agriculture organizations, academics and funders should commit to coming together and exploring the potential of these technologies.
This post is Part 1 of a 4-part series on the potential of low-cost sensor technologies to improve agriculture in developing countries.

  1. How Can Sensor Technologies and Precision Farming Improve Agriculture?
  2. 3 Barriers to Using Sensors to Improve ICTforAg

By Sabeen V. Dhanani, Digital Development for Feed the Future, a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security, focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.