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Precision, Geospatial & Sensor Technologies
Narrow profit margins, global competition, and attention to public goods have forced many producers, processors, and communities to carefully measure, monitor, micromanage resources to increase efficiency and overall benefit. Through program leadership and grants, NIFA emphasizes the use of information and precision technologies to deliver decision tools that improve management capabilities for agricultural, food, forestry, and community enterprises.

All precision agriculture activities have a number of things in common. First, data are collected with high, spatial and/or temporal resolution. Second, data are analyzed and related to treatments or manipulations that are specific in location and/or timing. Third, prescribed treatments are implemented using systems capable of precise control, tracking, or handling. Precision agricultural practices, such as site-specific applications of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and herbicides in agricultural crops and improved timber and non-timber management and utilization in forests, can reduce costs while minimizing environmental and ecological impacts. Similarly, properly timed and detailed control of animal care and feeding can minimize expenses and maximize animal growth and vitality.

Detailed information about crop and site conditions was once inaccessible or prohibitively expensive to acquire. However, advances in electronics, communications, and software during the past several decades have removed impediments. Farmers and natural resource managers can now collect, analyze, and use vast amounts of detailed information. These technologies, taken together, constitute the tools that enable precision agriculture.

The past decade has witnessed an explosion in the availability and use of information technology. This is especially true in the three allied geospatial technologies--remote sensing, geographic information systems (GISs), and the Global Positioning System (GPS). Technological advances often have occurred so quickly that many of the most obvious potential users, such as those involved in the use and management of agriculture and natural resources, and urban and regional planning, have been left behind. New sources of data from NASA (e.g., Landsat 7, Terra, MODIS, and Aqua) and high-resolution data from commercial sources are now available. These new data sources, accompanied by new methods of data processing and analysis, provide the basis for new applications and increase the challenge of assuring that the broad, potential user community receives the benefits of available technology.

NIFA has a commitment to bring science to society, and putting geospatial technology into practical use around the country is part of that mindset. Geospatial technologies, properly applied, help: improve the decision support tools of users at local to statewide levels, improve education in remote sensing and geospatial technology, and develop a workforce skilled in geospatial technology and integrated with the staffs of user organizations.

Sensors are devices that measure various characteristics of an object of interest.Sensors have so many industrial and consumer applications today that they have become necessary components of our daily lives: most home appliances contain several, and present-day automobiles will not work without them. Sensors make consumer products safer, more user-friendly, and more functional. Sensor technologies can have similar beneficial impacts when applied to agricultural, food, and forest production, processing, and product use. In partnership with land-grand universities and other agencies, NIFA supports development of robust sensors and instrumentation and associated software for observing, modeling, and analyzing a wide range of complex biological materials or chemical compounds, life forms, and processes.

Direct human observations can provide only general and unreliable qualitative information about crop health, food safety, and environmental conditions. We often need more exact quantitative measurements covering a broad range of spatial scales (from landscape-level assessments to bacteria counts on individual chicken carcasses) and vastly different time frames (from decadal climate change to continuous air monitoring near livestock operations). Sensor systems can make these needed measurements at high spatial and temporal frequencies. Engineered sensors and companion instrumentation and software extend human sensing capabilities to help ensure that our crops are healthy and productive, our food is safe and nutritious, and our indoor and outdoor environments remain uncontaminated.

NIFA also supports the training of new agriculture and food professionals with the skills necessary to function amid current and future technological workplaces. These technologies take advantage of recent advances in microelectronics, computer science, photonics, telemetry, robotics, wireless communication, and physical and chemical sensing systems. Much of NIFA's sensor efforts are carried out through activities across the agency, including food safety, air and water quality, specialty crops, and soil biology and management.
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