Close to 10 billion people will inhabit the world by 2050 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In line with this, is the growth in the demand for food. The agricultural sector, which is supposed to secure food supply, is facing challenges that threaten its very role.
Among these challenges are:
- Urbanization – farmlands are being transformed into residential areas or industrial sites, limiting the space to grow food
- Poverty – extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, forces farmers to seek employment in more developed, highly urbanized places
- Climate change and natural disasters – food production as well as access to food are being put at risk because of these phenomena.
To address these concerns, the agriculture sector, with the help of technology, seek for sustainable solutions that will increase production at a reduced cost and without sacrificing the environment.
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One such solution is a farm management approach called Precision Agriculture (PA). UK’s Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) define Precision Agriculture as “management of farm practices that uses computers, satellite positioning systems and remote sensing devices to provide information on which enhanced decisions can be made.” It helps farmers understand more their fields and their crops allowing them to appropriately use techniques in applying fertilizers and pesticides, assessing soil quality, monitoring plant growth, detecting weeds and many other applications.
Sensor Applications in Agriculture
Some of the sensors used in agriculture are as follows:
Optical sensors – these sensors measure the type and intensity of the reflected light wavelengths to evaluate crop and soil conditions. The reflected green light wavelength can be used to measure chlorophyll in leaves and evaluate conditions causing the reduction in green color such as nitrogen status, sulfur and iron deficiency. Optical sensors are also used to predict clay, organic matter, and moisture content in soil.
Mechanical sensors – these sensors measure soil mechanical resistance, often related to level of soil compaction. Compacted soil, which can be caused by the heavy weight of field equipment or just the natural soil forming processes, can lead to soil degradation and affect crop production negatively.
Electromagnetic sensors – due to low cost, high durability and rapid response, these sensors are commonly used for on-the-go soil mapping. Electromagnetic properties of soil are measured by its capability to conduct or accumulate electrical charge and are influenced by soil texture, organic matter or total carbon content, moisture content, salinity, residual nitrate content and other soil attributes.
Electrochemical sensors – these sensors have been successfully used to evaluate how fertile soil is by measuring the soil’s chemistry through tests such as nutrient content and pH level. Two commonly used electrochemical sensors are ion-selective electrodes (ISE) and ion-selective field effect transistor (ISFET). They measure the activity of selected ions (H+, K+, Na+, etc.) in the soil as well as the uptake of these ions by plants. Monitoring ion concentrations in plants helps farmers to design fertilization strategies that optimize production.
To address the challenges being faced by the agriculture sector, modern technologies are being developed to increase efficiency of farm inputs and reduce the environmental impact of farming. Precision agriculture utilizes these technologies, especially the different types of sensors to measure and evaluate soil and crop conditions. Farm producers benefit from these through reduction of farm inputs and at the same time optimizing farm outputs. Quality of crops is also being improved while taking into consideration the impact to the environment.