Ag drones, remote sensing and data standardization among the hot topics discussed and debated at the global event.

With more than 400 researchers, ag engineers and technology specialists attending the 12th International Conference on Precision Agriculture (ICPA) this year, one didn’t have to try hard to catch a glimpse — however cloudy — of where the industry is heading in the future.

One of the distinguishing factors which separates the ICPA from other precision-focused events is its emphasis on academic research and field testing of technology. The conference featured more than 150 presentations on a diverse range of topics, but the consistent theme was how the industry can turn precision farming practices into actionable information to improve efficiency and profitability for farmers.

“Precision farming, in general, is moving beyond just the technology and the data,” says John Nowatzki, agricultural machine systems specialist with North Dakota St. Univ. “Now we’re getting into making recommendations that can really help farmers manage their land in a more profitable way.”

Many of the tools and techniques used in the decision-making process were discussed during the 3-day event in Sacramento, Calif., and Precision Farming Dealer caught up with several precision farming experts to find out what they thought were some of the most provocative issues being discussed at the conference.

Here’s a look at 3 topics that proved to be conversation starters.

1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Legal use of ag drones in North America is extremely limited, but that hasn’t stopped a number of precision dealers from taking flight with the technology. Most practical research in the U.S. is being done at the university level and Nowatzki says two lessons learned through field tests are that ag drone success will hinge on the incorporation of auto-pilot on the systems and a scalable approach to collecting field data.

“Those collecting and processing the data need to make sure it’s not a finer resolution than it needs to be, because that will add to the time it takes for analysis,” Nowatzki says. “For in-season fertilizing and spraying in 20-foot sections, why would a farmer need centimeter-level accuracy? One meter accuracy would suffice and the data could be collected and processed in one-tenth the time.”

While ag drones hold tremendous potential, some suggest practical use is going to be limited to smaller operations.

Precision Ag Consultant James Schepers says UAVs are still somewhat “gimmicky” and manned aerial vehicles and satellite imagery may be more useful and efficient for scouting several thousand acres in a day.

“For small farmers, gadgeteers or a consultant, an ag drone is the way to go,” he says. “But serious people I think will go with manned aircraft to collect data. Maybe it will cost $1 per acre, but that may be worth it for peace of mind.”

2. Remote Sensing: Increasingly linked to UAV potential is remote sensing, according to conference attendees.

“Remote sensing has made progress now that we’re learning more about how to use it effectively,” says Harold Reetz, of Reetz Agronomics LLC. “Attaching these tools to UAVs may improve the ability of farmers to use the data collected.”

Several companies, including Nebraska-based Holland Scientific, are developing remote sensing technology to attach to ag drones for crop scouting. Company founder and ag engineer Kyle Holland is seeing increased interest from customers who want more field information to help assess fertilization needs, such as in-season herbicide or fungicide applications.

“We’re designing active optical sensors for a UAV platform, which is a self-contained device with GPS and a data logger,” Holland says. “It mounts on the belly of the drone and the data can be imported to a third party. This is really where we see remote sensing technology migrating to in the future.”

3. Data Standardization: While several sessions centered specifically on how the precision ag industry can solve the problem of data standardization, there was plenty of hallway chatter on the topic as well.

One of the challenges noted by Jeremy Wilson, precision farming specialist with CropIMS, is that the data collected in research trials doesn’t necessarily mirror what is collected on a customer’s farm.

“We have academia presenting on data collected in a controlled environment and the quality is very real,” Wilson says. “As we start taking and applying these different research projects, we move into a farm level analysis and evaluation, which is a totally different set of data quality that we’re looking at.”

Entities such as AgGateway are working toward standardization of seeding, harvest and crop protection data. But this effort is a work in progress and one which is constantly influenced by uncontrollable factors.

“People will tell me, ‘It’s not rocket science’,” says Ag Consultant Alexei Melnitchouck. “It’s actually more complicated than rocket science because we’re talking about Mother Nature. So in addition to the complexity of the data, it’s also unpredictable.”