Proponents of precision agriculture hope to dodge the often scary and complex debates about the potential merits and menaces of Artificial Intelligence (AI) by making their evolving science a meat-and-potatoes issue.
And Congress appears to be among those supporters with the House in April overwhelmingly adopting its second precision agriculture measure in five years.
In short, precision agriculture uses global positioning system (GPS) satellites to measure soil moisture levels, pinpoint ambient nutrients, identify anomalies, and provide response options using AI to challenges that affect crop and livestock production.
“Satellite technology is transforming agriculture across America,” Satellite Industry Association president Tom Stroup testified during a Feb. 8 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee on the proposed Precision Agriculture Satellite Connectivity Act.
“Satellite broadband, for instance,” he continued, offers “livestock sensors, soil monitors, and autonomous farming equipment in rural America, far beyond where terrestrial wireless and wireline can reach or make economic sense to deploy.”
The bill, HR 1339—co-sponsored by Reps. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill)—was adopted by the House in a 409–11 April 26 vote. It awaits its first hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
While the bill does not have a Senate companion, there is a proposed measure circulating about the chamber co-sponsored by Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and John Thune (R-SD) that would establish regulatory standards for precision agriculture.
The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review its satellite rules and regulations to determine how they can best accommodate the use of AI and Machine Learning by farmers and ranchers.
The FCC would have 15 months to present a plan to Congress with “ways to improve satellite technology and enable greater access for farmers.”
Latta, who chairs the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, also was among sponsors of the first precision agriculture bill in 2018.
That seminal measure was incorporated into the Farm Bill.
If approved by the Senate, the Precision Agriculture Satellite Connectivity Act will also be folded into the 2023 five-year update of the Farm Bill.
“With the House advancing my bipartisan bill, farmers in Ohio and across America are one step closer to incorporating new technology that not only benefits their operation, but also bolsters the food supply chain that so many Americans rely upon to feed their families,” Latta said in a statement after the measure passed through the House.
American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Government Affairs Emily Buckman, in a statement praising the bill, said the emerging technology “enables America’s farmers to do more while using fewer resources and is playing an ever-growing role in sustainability efforts.”
Sunrise, Sunset, Satellites
According to Stroup, GPS technologies “allow farmers to increase crop yield by optimizing use of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and applying site-specific treatments to fields.”
He said Earth imaging satellites connected to computers, phones, and drones can provide farmers and ranchers with high-resolution imagery that allows them “to determine when to plant, water, or fertilize crops and can be used to provide crop yield estimates and monitor global food security.
Satellite advances in weather forecasting help farmers prepare for drought, floods, and other adverse weather conditions.”
During the Feb. 8 hearing before Latta’s subcommittee, Planet Labs Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Compliance Danielle Pineres testified that “agricultural customers” use her company’s satellite imagery “to make more informed decisions around ideal investments in seed and crop protection products, when to plant, water, and harvest, and scout monitoring to identify underperforming crops early in a season.”
And they can get this data from satellites’ “near-daily coverage” to better conduct crop yield analyses and improve land use practices, she said.
The most sophisticated precision farming frameworks allow farmers to address issues, sometimes automatically, as they arise through AI and machine learning.
Examples include how sensors monitoring soil conditions can determine water levels are low in an area and turn on sprinkler systems.
Precision agriculture is being promoted by the satellite industry as just one of their technology’s benefits, but it is also spurring investment.
According to the AgFunder 2023 Global Agrifoodtech Global Investment Report, satellite and other sensing technologies ideal for precision agriculture received $1.7 billion in private funding in 2022.
Precision agriculture could be a boon to remote farms and ranches, Intelsat vice president of Global Government Affairs and Policy Peter Davidson told lawmakers.
“Of course, much of the agricultural production in the United States takes place in very rural areas, some of which do not have access to terrestrial service,” he testified.
“Precision agriculture will be necessary for efficient production and ecologically smart farming, and satellites can provide a solution. This bill, along with the upcoming Farm Bill, can significantly advance this important initiative.”
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