Just whip out your Global Positioning System (GPS) equipped Pocket PC and show her exactly where you spent a hot summer afternoon – in farmer Jones’ tomato field number 2604 scouting for worms.
Don’t have one of those? (A handheld computer…not a grouchy wife.) Don’t feel alone. You’re in the majority right now, but the latest gadget in the world of precision agriculture may be in your future if you are a pest control advisor, consultant or farmer. Whether you’ll be joined at the left hip with a GPS-PC like you are now with the cellular phone on your right hip remains to be seen.
It could happen. Melding satellite GPS/GIS with the new, powerful Pocket PCs from the likes of Palm, Compaq and Hewlett Packard may finally, realistically taken the computer to the fields.
Those magazine photographs of farmers and his consultant look at a laptop computer sitting on a pickup hoods illustrating the use of computers in agriculture are becoming a bit much. Yes, computers are widely used every day in farming, but to haul one around on the front seat of a pickup across bumpy, dusty roads is not always practical.
Several companies have developed GPS tracking and mapping devices that can be easily connected to smaller, more portable Pocket PCs and one of the leaders in GPS agricultural technology, Trimble, is introducing its own proprietary version of handheld GPS and Windows data-logger.
Scott Reinert, GPS/GIS specialist for Precision Farming Enterprises in Davis, Calif. said until the Trimble unit came along, agriculturists had to buy three components to take GPS and data-loggers to the field; a handheld PC; an add-on GPS tracking device designed for use with the small PC and software to record the information.
The cost for such package is from $1,000 to $1,500, depending on the PC’s bells and whistles.
“Most of the handhelds we see used today with GPS are consumer models, and unfortunately they are not very rugged. That is one of the few drawbacks with these combo packages. They often cannot take the dust and dirt of farming,” said Reinert. “The GPS units that are available to meld with the PCs are generally pretty sturdy. But, of course, if the PC goes out, the GPS is useless.”
Reinert said industrial strength handheld PCs that are waterproof and dust proof are available, but they cost as much as $3,000. “You can buy several consumer handhelds for that,” he said.
Precision Farming Enterprises has sold probably 60 of these combo units in the western United States, mostly to farm management companies, ag service providers, ag farm retailers, pest control advisors and other consultants and educators and researchers.
“These units are used to verify acreage and record keeping, scouting reports and water management,” he said. They are useful to people who deal with large acreage. Ag retailers are using them to more accurately calculate material needs for jobs. This saves on hauling costs.
“For the average farmer who has been farming the same ground over and over, these probably will not be very useful,” he said.
However, Reinert said farmers could benefit from the technology because loading them with aerial imagery of a field can aid consultants in visually pinpointing quickly to a farmer where they may be problems from insects, diseases, irrigation and other crop limiting factors.
“These small handheld units are not as accurate as the larger, backpack GPS units which are sub-meter accurate. These handhelds using the available GPS add-ons are accurate within 2 to 6 meters,” he said.
Two of the biggest providers of these add-on GPS systems are Pretec and Navman.
Navman coupled with the iPAQ Pocket PC is one of the most popular ones in San Joaquin Valley agriculture.
Fresno, Calif. irrigation consultant Jim Hill has been borrowing one for several months from Matt Bethel, research project manager for NASA conducting variable rate Pix trials in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I have been using simple GPS units to mark spots in fields where I want to take pressure bomb readings for irrigation scheduling,” said Hill. “I have two employees. Each has a unit that will take them to exactly where I want to take readings to get consistent reasons all season long.”
The iPAQ GPS system he tried out goes one step beyond that. It will download aerial images of fields that give Hill an overview of an entire field to identify problem areas. And it is equipped with programs he can use to download information he collects from the fields, be it pressure bomb readings or other information he wants to download.
“The little Garmen GPS units I bought for my employees cost only about $150. The iPAQ costs more than $1,000. I am not sure I need all the capability for what I am doing, but I can see where it would be very handy in developing variable rate chemical and fertilizer applications,” he said.
John Ojala, USDA-ARS research agronomist who specializes in precision agriculture technology and is based at the Shafter Research Station in Kern County, Calif., said the GPS-Pocket PC technology has been widely used in other industry, but it is just now catching on in agriculture.
“Its portability and relative low costs make it ideal for a lot of uses in agriculture,” said Ojala. “I think it will be a more widely used tool to allow field men and farmers to more quickly go to a problem using GPS and aerial imagery in a handheld. It should save a great deal of scouting time.”
Like any new technology, right now the most progressive farmers and consultants are dabbling in GPS/Pocket PC technology. Both Reinert and Ojala are uncertain how widely it will be adopted.
With adapting any new technology, it must be used to be utilized.
“If you make the investment in one of these units, you need to see how it will fit your business. There is nothing more frustrating to use something for a few weeks; put it away and then pick it up several months alter when you think you might need to use it,” Reinert said.