Data is the crop: GNSS used by surveyors and farmers

January 6, 2016  - By

As technology continues to march forward, and storage and data evaluation use grows, the surveyor and the farmer will begin to use each other’s skillsets to increase their own productivity. So how do we get there? First, we must establish how each side uses their prospective GPS tools.

As a child, I spent several summer vacations at my relatives’ farms in central Illinois. My early impression of working on a farm was one of long hours and hard work. Work and chores completed by my family members was very physical with no set hours to look forward to. My uncles didn’t get to set the schedules for rain and sun and had no say in whether or not a piece of equipment would break down.

What I encountered as a child taught me that there was no technology in farming; it was nothing but hard work. The thought of using something as high-tech as GPS would have made most old-time farmers laugh you right out of the coffee shop.

My career as a land surveyor has had its share of hard work at times, but it has been the technology that has always fascinated me. When I began as a rodman, the electronic distance meter allowed surveyors to measure distances more than a mile instead of hand taping the entire way, and with much more accuracy. Along the way, I’ve watched computer technology grow, with total stations that incorporate cameras and video and GPS receivers that provide accurate locations instantaneously.

That brings us to our modern-day crossroads. As surveyors, we are constantly trying to find ways to incorporate our skills into other occupations to increase productivity. We also see the modern farmer moving away from small family operations with only several hundred acres, morphing into farm management corporations with tens of thousands of acres as well as millions of dollars of equipment.

Efficiency is what they are after, and they are spending significant amounts of money on technology to make it happen. My own curiosity and research has opened my eyes to how far the farming profession has grown, and in many ways surpassed the land surveyor with technology. But I think there is still common ground that needs to be explored, so let’s start at the root of each profession.

The Farmer and the Surveyor

As different as the two professions may seem, farming and surveying have one large common link: data. More specifically, the tools, methods and procedures they operate to acquire the data used in their everyday jobs and projects.

The implementation of GPS equipment and the ability to collect location data has greatly improved the productivity of both professions, but for drastically different reasons. However, as technology continues to march forward, and storage and data evaluation use grows, the surveyor and the farmer will begin to use each other’s skillsets to increase their own usefulness.

So, how do we get there? First, we must establish how each side uses their respective GPS tools.

The Land Surveyor

The land surveyor and his or her staff use GPS daily, with varying degrees of accuracy. Here are a few examples:

Mapping-Grade GPS Device (>= 3 meters)

This handheld unit is primarily used for mapping utilities and improvements that don’t require high accuracy. The data and attributes acquired by this unit will be inserted into geographic information system (GIS) databases for inventory, and maintenance logs for future review and upgrade needs. Surveyors use these units for mapping items that require additional attributes and information necessary to improve the overall usefulness of a GIS database.

Differential GPS (<= 1 meter)

Differential GPS provides live positional solutions for applications that require more accuracy than mapping-grade GPS, at a reasonable equipment and operational price. These systems are used by aeronautical companies for mapping assistance, logistics companies for asset tracking, and emergency operations for 911 systems. These systems are also used by hydrographic surveyors for use in mapping lake and river bottoms as well as surveyors working in open pit mines, producing existing condition maps and volumetric surveys.

Survey-Grade GPS

Surveyors began implementing GPS equipment into their measuring repertoire in the mid 1980s with the introduction of data collection by static methods. This technique allowed for long-distance measurements with good accuracy and precision, but it came at an incredibly expensive cost.

By the mid 1990s, real-time kinematic (RTK) equipment was introduced, and gave the land surveyor a new gateway into long-distance measurement with shorter occupation time and less cost. Additional enhancements to RTK systems included on-the-fly initialization, increased data-collector capability, and cellular/long-distance radio networks.

These improvements allowed increased data-collection productivity, including mobile collection on all-terrain and survey vehicles. A topographic survey of a 40-acre parcel that would take several days of walking now is completed in less than 6 hours on an ATV. Boundary retracements of large parcels that used to take weeks of traversing the perimeter can now be done in a few days.

Many credit GPS technology and functionality for greatly improving land surveying production as well as increasing accuracy and precision of the work.

The Farmer

Photo credit: ViaMoi via / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: ViaMoi via / CC BY-NC-ND

Farming has been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. History tells us this has been a hard life for many of these families as manual labor was at the root of the occupation. Livestock and family members were used to pull the necessary implements for planting each year’s crop, with most harvesting being done by hand.

The Industrial Revolution brought the tractor and planting and harvesting equipment. After World War II, equipment manufacturers retooled their factories to increase the size and capacity of tractors. Even with the reduced manual labor that a farm tractor allowed, it was still a physical burden on the farmer planting crops and driving the miles of rows necessary to plant fields.

Also, many agricultural areas became more organized, with local farm bureaus and associations being formed to help the farmer. These organizations provided information on how to increase yields in their crops; this data became the basic form of a GIS database for soils and drainage mapping well before digital mapping. These databases provided the initiative for the farmer to analyze planting methods and rates; herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer applications; and to review crop yields for notable increases and deficiencies.

In the 1980s, yield monitoring equipment became a new tool for the forward-thinking farmer to invest in, analyzing how well his crops were producing. The only negative was the inability to accurately map the location of the various yield rates that would occur in the harvest. The farmer was forced to spend more time reading the yield analyzations in smaller parts of his fields in order to identify where adjustments were needed for increasing the output. Many farmers didn’t see the return on investment for this system, and those who did purchase such a system soon gave up.

In the early 1990s, Rockwell International debuted the Vision System, a GPS unit using a U.S. Coast Guard correction system paired with a yield monitoring unit to map the location of yield rates during field operations. Trimble, John Deere and others were soon developing their own systems. All of these systems were expensive, delicate and too complex for most farmers to justify installing in their tractors.

However, new discoveries in GPS technology during the late 1990s brought sweeping changes to this new tool for the farmer. While the term “precision agriculture” had floated around for a while, it wasn’t until the introduction of high-accuracy GPS that the statement reflected correctly on the industry.

Differential GPS (<= 1 meter)

John Deere began its pursuit of GPS technology in the early 1990s along with many others, but the company’s decision to continue pursuing this competitive edge is what led to several advancements for the farming industry. Deere’s work with Stanford University and NASA led to the revision of differential corrections for GPS locations to gain additional accuracy for a guidance system for Deere equipment.

By 1998, John Deere presented a differential GPS system that provided 1-2 meter accuracy to assist farmers with smaller tolerances of precision field planting and harvesting. Innovations such as this led to many more advancements in the farming industry.

Real-Time Kinematic (<= 2.5 centimeters)

Today’s precision farming is more accurate than ever, with RTK networks providing a bulk of the coverage necessary to supply the farmer with corrections. In places where a local correction provider is not available, the farmer has choices of setting up his own base for correction or subscribing to other real-time networks via cellphone coverage. These systems allow for highly accurate mapping and guidance systems so the farmer has more control and information on his field and crops than ever before. Farmers now using GPS control in precise methods have more tools for increasing yields and production, including crop planning, soil sampling, pesticide/herbicide/fertilizer application and harvest analyzation.

Crop planning used to be strictly in the hands of the farmer who drove his tractor in his field in an effort to follow the lay of the land. Today’s farmer uses topographic maps, aerial photography and mapping software to create planting patterns that make farming more efficient. By maximizing the planting configuration, this is also an opportunity to minimize fuel consumption. Soil sampling and weed mapping are now staples of many farmers’ activities.

The farmer uses these methods to reduce the number of contaminants within the crop. He can also analyze the field’s health in order to apply the appropriate amount of necessary chemicals. These procedures are now computer controlled to vary the rate of application depending on the location within the field.

Harvest analyzation has become the biggest source of data collected. Yield monitoring equipment was the first tool introduced into the electronic farming age. Now, coupled with GPS mapping of yield rates and volumes, farmers can accurately predict spot, regional and overall crop production from their fields. This data, along with soil mapping, is reviewed after the harvest and is used to determine a strategic plan for the next year’s planting.

The biggest improvement, in most farmers’ opinions, is the implementation of steering-guidance systems. Initially produced to be strictly a guide to the driver, systems are now automated into the steering system to follow a predetermined path within a 1-inch tolerance. This frees the driver to monitor planting, spray application and harvesting operations.

By turning the driving over to an automated system, field row overlap is reduced by up to 30 percent. This decreases double coverage of seed and spray application and it minimizes fuel consumption. This system also allows for less driver fatigue with the ability to work around the clock as needed or conditions dictate. Coupling this steering system with variable rate planters and sprayers, the farmer has a system that allows him to be more effective in managing and monitoring operations.

Bringing the Two Occupations Together

Both of these noble professions are using a highly accurate form of measurement and data recording, but we must review further how they can help each other. To do that, we must analyze what each is doing with the technology.

Surveyors and GPS Use

Roles of the surveyor are to measure land, provide his professional knowledge regarding parcel boundaries, and collect data for engineering and drainage purposes. A majority of this data is now collected by GPS methods and is in NAD83 state plane coordinates with NAVD88 elevations. This information can be supplemented by county and state GIS data as well. Surveyors also have knowledge of existing monuments by local, state and federal authorities tied to these coordinate systems/datums so all future surveys can be related to each other geographically.

Farmers and GPS Use

Farmers who have embraced GPS technology now have the power not only to map and collect data, but to also utilize previous data for crop efficiency. This ability to run a more efficient farming system is happening now for many farmers. The farmer is educated in regard to seed germination, weed and bug prevention, and maximizing crop yields so collecting this data has become a necessary task.

The Farmer and the Surveyor — Harvesting Data

The farmer and the surveyor can use their knowledge in many ways for the mutual benefit of increasing crop yields, efficiently working the land, and maximizing production.

The surveyor’s knowledge of topography and drainage can assist the farmer with shaping of land to minimize water runoff and loss of key nutrients in the soil. This loss is estimated to be an average of two to three tons of soil per acre per year. Installation of drainage tile in addition to grading can be a critical part of minimizing soil loss, and the surveyor can help with this analysis.

Accurate boundaries allow the farmer to know the limits of his property. The surveyor can provide this information so the farmer can maximize his planting configuration, yet not encroach on the adjacent property. The surveyor can also help with the creation of land-management systems to help farmland owners plan for financial decisions and tax strategies.

The biggest opportunity for the surveyor is to offer assistance to the farmer who has little or no knowledge of data collection. This geospatial data can be confusing to those not familiar with this information. Farmers who become educated in analyzing and reading crop data can increase production and yields.

Surveyors have the math skills and background to assist with the management of the data from a location standpoint. This effort will help the farmer know soil conditions, germination, spray application and harvesting to maximize the cost effectiveness of his investment in the land.

Together, the farmer and the surveyor can create a successful partnership that can increase crop production worldwide. Data is the crop that brings them together, and planted with the right amount of care and nurturing, this data can become more valuable than ever.

Tim Burch

About the Author:

Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985, and is the secretary, Board of Directors, National Society of Professional Surveyors.

1 Comment on "Data is the crop: GNSS used by surveyors and farmers"

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  1. Tony Brooks says:

    Great story and what I have been trying to achieve as a new self employment business. After 25 years of working in the Engineering Surveying services world with the down economy I was looking for a new place to use my skills. I found Precision Ag and started looking at what they were doing and saw that my skills fit well with where technology was leading farmers. To me it is about collecting land facts, putting them in a graphical package and handing over to Engineers in the past and ideally Farmers in the future. Also many of the technologies coming at Surveyor in the Engineering world are now coming at Farmers at a much faster rate. Who better to help them then a Surveyor who has been there. Besides working in the clean open fresh air is much more enjoyable than sitting in traffic to and from work! Great article!