Six precision farming terms explained

Ready to get stuck into precision farming but baffled by the terminology? David Cousins explains some of the stranger words you’ll encounter.

BIG DATA

Data used to be something that white-coated scientists with bushy beards generated from their oscilloscopes and fed into a computer the size of a small house. Then industrialists, engineers and even accountants got in the act, spitting out rolls of computer paper with baffling (though strangely comforting) numbers on it. This was the era of small, cuddly data, and farmers were able to ignore it with impunity.

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Now everything from a mobile phone to a combine console generates data, but marshalling all that info into something useful is proving a bit of challenge. Our advice? Go back to a data-free Ford 5000 or encourage your kids to train as a data scientist.

CLOUD-BASED

Everyone from Microsoft to Google likes to tell you that keeping information on your phone, iPad or computer is old hat. Don’t leave it there, they say, where you could accidentally erase it, drop it or have it nicked – put it into the “cloud”.

But the rather attractive notion of your data being up there with the angels is somewhat at odds with the reality. In fact, the cloud is no more than a whimsical name for what essentially is untold bank of servers (huge versions of the hard drive you have in your computer) in boring, windowless sheds on industrial estates.

ISOBUS

Isobus is almost certainly the oddest and most baffling word in the ag machinery dictionary. It’s a curious amalgam of the initials of the racy-sounding International Standards Organisation and something called a bus – though not the sort filled with old ladies and badly behaved schoolboys.

It’s actually a worldwide connectivity standard for allowing tractors and implements to talk to each other and also provides a framework for manufacturers of farm vehicles and electronic devices to create data networks.

An Isobus-ready implement actually carries a small computer containing all the data needed to operate its various functions electronically using an Isobus-compliant terminal in the tractor cab.

GPS

GPS may keep us on the straight and narrow in our cars and autosteered tractors and combines, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. The General Positioning System (GPS) is the system set up by the US military in the mid-1970s. It originally consisted of 22 satellites, though these have been added to by the Russian Glonass system and will soon be joined by Chinese and EU versions.

The systems use absurdly accurate caesium clocks to time how far it takes a signal to get to your tractor and back again and therefore how far away you are. From that, massive cleverness of headache-inducing proportions allows the system to know where you are on the earth’s surface.

Regular GPS of the sort used by car satnavs has a slightly pathetic accuracy of 10m, but farmers get to use systems that can be as accurate as +/-2cm. Figures vary, but it’s a fair bet the majority of UK acres are now farmed with the aid of GPS-type systems.

DRONES

There’s lot of futuristic talk about drones at the moment. However, the concept of sending unmanned items through the air dates back to the 1800s, when the Austrians floated pilotless, bomb-filled balloons over the skies of Venice.

The modern version of drones (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have a more useful role, and generally consist of either mini helicopters with four or eight rotors or winged planes.

How does all this fun kit affect farmers? Well, the drones can helpfully hover over crops and send back pictures of crop disease, blackgrass infestation and so on. However, the cost of a decent-quality unit can be anything from £30,000-50,000, so it’s more of an agronomist’s tool than a farmer’s.

GPRS, 3G and 4G

These terms are widely bandied about but can be pretty confusing. GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service and is simply a way of sending relatively low amounts information from one mobile phone to another. 3G (which stands for 3rd generation) is a speedier version, and the recently launched 4G is more powerful still.

All three are a key part of the increasing connectivity of our world. Even if it hasn’t happened already, your tractor screen will soon be talking to the drill behind and both will send information back to the farm office and on to other (hopefully benign) organisations you deal with. In fact, at the current rate of progress, pretty much everything you own that’s more complex than a screwdriver will be chatting merrily to everything else. Oh yes.