Lessons from the Field

How precision agriculture is pioneering analytics.


  • Farming is one of the first industries to be totally transformed by data.

  • Hardware and analytics advances together are allowing farmers to adopt more ecologically friendly practices and produce more flavorful food.

  • Farmers are realizing the sorts of goals that experts foresee reaching in almost every other industry.



When Nathan Stein hears the term “Internet of Things,” he thinks of corn and soybeans. These plants’ second-by-second adaptation to weather and soil conditions produces a nonstop stream of data that help him better run his family’s Iowa farm. Using analytics software developed for farmers, he can simulate the impact of water, fertilizer, and pesticide adjustments.

“I can basically virtualize the entire crop,” Stein says.

Stein is among a growing number of farmers using real-time data collection and computer-based analysis. Thanks to farmers like Stein—as well as researchers and companies developing technology for them—agriculture, the oldest of human industries, is becoming a prime testing ground for sensors, drones, and big-data analytics.

These methods are helping farmers increase yields, margins, and efficiencies on a massive scale—goals of every industry.

Something that works “in the context of large-scale farms could allow for that application into other domains,” says Vin Sharma, director of strategy, product, and marketing for Big Data Solutions at Intel.

For example, a retailer could use a single-function foot traffic sensor to replace video analytics in measuring and improving the effectiveness of in-store displays. A fulfillment center manager could embed a sensor on a general-purpose drone to check inventory. And across many other industries, CIOs could implement sensor-derived data analytics to precisely control corporate resources ranging from raw materials to computing power. Targeted control promises efficiencies not only within the company, but potentially all along the supply chain.

I can basically virtualize the entire crop.

Nathan Stein, Iowa farmer

We anticipate that the data center and the edge devices are going to evolve together.

Vin Sharma, director of Big Data Solutions at Intel

Since 2010, Iowa farmer Stein has used aerial imagery from satellites and planes to detect information such as elevation, temperature, soil moisture, and chlorophyll levels. He exports images and data to mapping and analysis software from senseFly*—he works for the Swiss company as liaison between the company’s customers and engineers—to identify unhealthy areas of his crops.

One thing Stein has observed through the process of collecting and analyzing data is the extent to which conditions on his farm can change throughout a day. As the sun’s angle changes, and heat builds up in the ground, “You see a shift in thermal data, and you see the transpiration of the plants pick up and drop off,” he says.

The data Stein derived from the overhead imagery of his family’s farm “quickly showed us in the spring just how much damage not [installing] more drainage...was costing our corn field”—almost 40 bushels an acre.

“This fact alone triggered us to spend thousands of dollars to put in a new main and laterals, to adequately drain waterlogged soils,” says Stein.

Soon, he plans to soon use the senseFly* drones and software to optimize fertilizer distribution on his farm. Using senseFly’s software and a post-flight drone map, he could program a self-driving tractor to distribute a prescribed amount of fertilizer throughout the field.

Devices such as smart drones and autonomous tractors raise the question of where the intelligence lies and where data processing will happen: in equipment at the edge of the farm, or in a cloud-based data center? Sharma says the answer is both.

“There is a somewhat specious either/or argument in some parts of the industry,” he says. “We anticipate that the data center and the edge devices are going to evolve together.”

Sharma gives the human nervous system as an apt metaphor. You want enough reflexive intelligence at the edge to pull your hand off a hot stove without having to “think” about it. But central intelligence of the brain can help improve or override actions to create higher-level value. Future farms will pair smart semi-autonomous devices with cloud-based central command system that benefits from analyzing data across many locations.

Stein echoes that point. “Agriculture data’s very timely, and it has to be captured at a very precise moment, and it has to work every time,” he says. On today’s farm, he adds, a farmer is a “connoisseur of data.”