Earlier this month the USDA awarded a bunch of money ($28 million), through its Specialty Crop Research Initiative program, to fund projects dedicated to the support of specialty crops through genetics research, pest identification and eradication, improved food safety, improved production, and the development of new technologies and innovations.
Those groups who are applying sensing include the University of California at Davis, who will be adapting a sensor platform to improve the nitrogen and water supply to tree crops, the University of Georgia who will be researching mechanical blueberry harvesting, and Carnegie Mellon who'll be working on integrated automation for specialty crop farming. The full press release is available at the USDA's Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service Web site.
In April 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, the NSF, and a number of specialty crop groups met to discuss the engineering needs for specialty crops, which tend to have special needs that are missed in large national agricultural technology development programs. The workshop report is available here. As described in the introduction, the most important concerns listed were "product quality, labor cost and availability, and environmental footprint." Sensors were needed to monitor growing conditions both to improve the condition of the crops and to enable efficient use of water and nutrients and application of other chemicals. Automated systems were also listed as a priority.
So, who's using or developing agricultural sensors now? What follows is not a complete list, but it will give you a taste of the variety that's out there. John Deere has integrated a moisture sensor into its automated forage harvesters. the real-time readings during harvest allow farmers to ensure that their silage has a sufficient moisture content. (As an added nice touch, farmers can detach the sensor from the harvester and use it to create a silage analysis lab.) Crossbow Technology developed a wireless crop monitoring sensor system called eKo, currently being used in a number of vineyards. An Iowa State University researcher, Ratnesh Kumar, is developing wireless soil moisture sensors that would buried underground in a grid to provide information on how water moves through the soil and enable more efficient use of water and nutrients. GreenSeeker systems, from NTech Industries and developed at Oklahoma State University, evaluate plant health based on the amount of light reflected back from plants. A related product, WeedSeeker, detects weeds growing between crop rows. This Colorado State University cooperative extension newsletter from 2002, talks about sensors in agriculture and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) maintains a page on sensor technology, with extensive links to information, research programs and funding, and resources.
I expect that interest in, and adoption of, agricultural sensors will increase as the bio-fuels sector grows. And why not? If you're trying to get the biggest bang for your investment buck, wouldn't you look for ways to streamline and optimize your crop production? That doesn't mean that farmers involved in other types of farming don't need this technology—they do. But, as a general rule, the people who adopt new technologies are those who have the money to invest in it coupled with a driving need to make their process better and faster.