Back to the earliest days of precision agriculture, when the pioneers of technology were chasing a system for identifying and writing prescriptions for variable-rate fertilizer, field imagery was an essential data point in the process. Combining manned aircraft photography with soil data and land-based GPS, the concept proved doable, but excruciating.
Over the three decades or so since those early discoveries, imagery has substantially grown and evolved, along with its value proposition in the agronomic decision-making process. Satellite collection has improved in frequency and resolution with additional constellations and systems, while imagery generated from manned and unmanned aircraft have proven useful when higher resolution, or more immediacy, is required.
Historically, retailers and their farmer-customers struggled to extract consistent value from imagery. What is the image actually able to tell an adviser about the field and the crop that results in an actionable response? At times, imagery providers and integrators overpromised capabilities, or asked advisers to rely on interpretive algorithms that too often didn’t provide the right answers.
Today, the conversations with the companies that provide or incorporate imagery are refreshingly realistic. Imagery data of a field compared against itself over time can provide a sort of binary indication of conditions (to scout or not to scout), and as a component of a larger body of data that, when run through an algorithm, may deliver more insights than the imagery alone.
And, all agree that boots-on-the-ground verification is the only way imagery makes a meaningful impact on crop production.
Leading enterprise management system software manufacturers that feature agronomic planning and management offerings have incorporated imagery ways that bring value to the adviser without having to think about it as a separate entity. Ernie Chappell, President of EFC Systems, compares it to modern car features that are simply built in. “Dealers aren’t asking whether you want an airbag system, it simply comes with the car,” he says.
In years past when imagery was a non-integrated option, grower-customers and retailers would often trim the service from the budget when the finances got tight. Imagery integrated with other system data creates the opportunity to turn a pretty picture into actionable recommendations.
EFC customers get one image pulled for their field once the boundary is established, and that image is automatically normalized with imagery from the past five years to present a more accurate picture of field performance. When integrated with EFC’s AgSolver system, the end user can create images depicting yield potential for profit planning, zone creation, and nutrient zone. For users who want to use imagery from other sources, EFC can integrate offerings from companies like Taranis, Sentera, TerrAvion, and others that provide it on a regularly scheduled basis.
High-end options are terrific, but it’s the base offering that provides a soft introduction to the use of imagery, and hopefully leads to greater adoption, says Chappell. “We really have to get the masses on board with precision if we’re going to move the industry forward.”
From the retail agronomist perspective, he adds that retailers are “tired of multiple relationships and multiple software systems. They want one system, so they need provider that gives them access to data and utilities that provide opportunities to grow their customer base.”
The Agworld software system also features imagery that is built into the total package, and provides manifold in-season scouting benefits to retail users, say President Zach Sheely. “The baseline imagery allows users to access the vegetative index on all farms and fields the retailer services. This helps display variability not only from field to field, but within fields.”
Scanning the imagery can help improve the efficiency of the scouting effort by indicating not only which fields need attention first, but what areas of each field require a scouting visit. “Being able to manage scouting by observing variability in imagery is really the main use case for it,” says Sheely. And like EFC, Agworld integrates many outside sources of imagery at the customer’s request.
Clear value is of course table stakes, but without ease of use, imagery fails. “We’ve worked hard to make it really easy to view image, and that really been our focus,” he says. “Most companies have made it hard to use imagery at scale across lots of fields, with accessibility to multiple employees, but we’ve made that easy.”
Proagrica also offers satellite imagery as part of its Sirrus Premium imagery package, which delivers the images automatically to their device for them to accept or reject. Accepted imagery syncs to all Proagrica agronomy platforms via agX, and users also have the option of purchasing imagery from agX partners, including Paramount Reports, Taranis, TerrAvion, and Ag Pixel.
Sarah Steuber, Customer Insights Researcher, agrees that the value of NDVI imagery lies in identifying problem areas. “Agronomic advisers are able to use the imagery to locate areas of a field that could potentially have issues like irrigation problems, insect pressure, or other diseases. When scouting a field, users can utilize the imagery to navigate to the problem areas quickly and efficiently. This saves the service provider time, and gives the grower more accurate information about the health of their crops.”
Building On Imagery
Sentera began working on its agronomic insight platform called FieldAgent in 2016, and has integrated multiple sources of imagery along with data from a laundry list if other sources to provide early-season feedback on planting and emergence, as well as recognition of in-field issues throughout the season. In-field sensors, machinery and equipment information, and weather data are integrated with imagery to construct agronomic recommendations.
“We believe in integration,” says Eric Taipale, Sentera’s CEO. “The goal is to create something as actionable as possible – a detailed scouting report that becomes a high-value tool for agronomists.”
Taranis is also building an agronomic intelligence system that is designed to significantly streamline scouting programs and improve their accuracy. To this end, it has made continuous progress by focusing on aggregating the “wild west” of imagery and pulling in all viable sources.
Taranis claims its system is able to capture 0.3mm/pixel resolution images of fields from planes and drones at a speed of 100 acres in six minutes. “With this technology, they generate precise, leaf-level diagnosis 20 times faster than the manual alternative, and with 20 times more data points scouted,” according to the company.
“Until recently, growers have had to wait on time-consuming manual scouting to assess threats, formulate an action plan, and react,” says Ofir Schlam, CEO and co-founder of Taranis “Our ag intelligence service takes out the guesswork and brings hyper-local, real-time insights from the fields to your fingertips.”
Schlam notes that wherever he goes retailers want the same thing: To bring better, differentiated, comprehensive service, and to build credibility with growers through quality engagement. “They can do this with information that is precise, local, and at the right time of the season,” he says. “Here is what is happening in your field and here is the proof.”