Path to Precision

What you can measure, you can improve: why you need sensors in precision agriculture

26 Nov 2021

While they sound high-tech, sensors are not reserved for precision farming: you are using them in all aspects of your life, every day!

  • Every time you walk through an automatic door
  • Every time you change the channel on your television
  • Every time you drive your car and accelerate or brake, check the fuel gauge, or adjust the air conditioning
  • Every time you unlock your smartphone using biometrics such as a fingerprint scan or facial recognition

Sensors are all around us, and you don't need to be afraid of using them on your farm.

Sensors are at the heart of precision agriculture. They are the very foundation of our measurement and control principles and without them, precision farming is near impossible. You've heard of 'data', right? Sensors are the origins of that data.

By definition, a sensor is a 'device which detects and/or measures a physical property and records, indicates or otherwise responds to it' and we need sensors in precision farming to do exactly that—measure physical change to enable a calculated response.

So, what does a sensor look like in precision agriculture?

Well, there are many. The most common (and arguably most powerful) is a yield sensor. If there was one sensor to rule them all in precision agriculture, this would be it. A yield sensor, installed on your harvester, allows you to measure, you guessed it, your crop yield! And yield sensors are fast becoming standard on harvesting equipment.

'What you can measure, you can improve' – with this being the ultimate goal for farmers, a yield sensor not only measures total crop yield but, with the addition of GNSS, allows site-specific measurements within your field, known as yield mapping.

Farmers can now measure their yield variability, and more importantly, improve it where it needs improving. If there's one part of your field with low yield, you now know about it and can set to work figuring out and controlling the causes.

The other common sensors used in precision farming are:

  • Speed sensors: could be vehicle speed or even harvester elevator speed. Both measure their respective physical properties and are used in precision farming calculations
  • Flow sensors: measuring your input usage (such as fuel, seed or chemicals)
  • Moisture sensors: usually used in conjunction with a yield sensor, measuring crop moisture content
  • Position sensors: measuring positions of various machine parts, such as wheels and linkages, for example

As technology improves today, remote sensors are also being increasingly adopted in precision farming. In short, remote sensors are high-tech 'cameras' used to detect the physical characteristics of an area i.e. your crop.

​These sensors commonly exist as attachments on machines or drones, and now frequently as services leveraged from satellite imagery! The primary function of remote sensors within agriculture is sensing crop health, with the ability to detect disease, weed and pest infestation, and potential yields.

Whatever the type of sensor, their objective is straightforward—to measure! The really clever part in precision farming is what you can now start to do with these measurements.

Talk to your agronomist, farm advisor or agricultural machinery dealer about what needs to be measured on your farm and what technology is available to achieve that aim.

​You may also be interested in learning about GNSS​.