The use of EGNOS and Galileo satellite navigation systems can help Europe’s farmers become more efficient, reduce their use of chemicals, and increase crop yields, as demonstrated by an EU-funded research project.
FieldFact was established to promote the use of EGNOS and Galileo in the agricultural sector. At a FieldFact conference held 10 March in Brussels, researchers showed how the integration of the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and topographic data in farm management systems could aid precision farming.
The Harvesting Galileo conference was held to mark the end of the FieldFact project, which completes its work at the end of March 2009. Farmers benefit from satellite location and navigation services by gaining accurate and timely information, for example, on where to plant and to apply fertiliser.
“At a time when cereal prices have almost doubled, and other inputs such as fertiliser and fuel have risen enormously, there is more need for optimisation in the agricultural sector,” said Tamme van der Wal, FieldFact’s project coordinator.
Removing the barriers to adoption
By increasing the accuracy, availability, reliability and continuity of satellite signals, EGNOS and Galileo will remove some of the barriers to the adoption of precision agriculture by farmers, van der Wal said.
In particular, EGNOS, which is now operational, improves the accuracy of the US’ GPS satellite navigation signals down to about one metre. In addition, EGNOS provides verification of the system’s integrity, a feature necessary for any legal requirements farmers may have to meet, such as measuring fields for compensation under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The improved accuracy of EGNOS can also be used by farmers for what is called Variable Rate Application (VRA), a practice used in precision farming. VRA requires the use of GNSS sensors, aerial images, and other information management tools for determining optimum herbicide doses, fertiliser requirements and other inputs to help farmers save money, reduce their impact on the environment and increase crop yields. With VRA farmers adjust their doses in field operations to the observed variability in the field. For example, only sections of a field with weeds are treated with a herbicide.
Applying GNSS in agriculture
FieldFact’s work found that EGNOS and Galileo can be used in precision farming for among other applications:
- Tractor guidance and implement guidance
- Variable ploughing, seeding and spraying
- Mechanical weeding
- Cow fertility detection
- Virtual fencing
- Land parcel identification and geo-traceability
- Post harvest pick-up
- Supervised tracking of livestock
- Field measurements
- Field boundary mapping and updating
By providing a verifiable way of documenting the parcel of land on which a crop was grown, EGNOS and Galileo can also fulfill the increasing demand for traceability from consumers and food regulators, van der Wal said.
“You would be able to scan a sack of potatoes at a supermarket and be able to tell that this potato came from this field using geo-traceability,” he said.
FieldFact also identified the main trends of GNSS use in arable farming. For example GNSS is being integrated into tractors for auto-guidance. The farmer can let the guidance system steer the tractor in the most efficient manner, reducing his fatigue and allowing him to operate for longer. The auto-guidance system also allows the farmer to plan precisely what swath pattern the tractor follows.
Promotion and demonstration events
To demonstrate the benefits FieldFact held promotion and demonstration events across Europe showing the integration of GNSS and topographic data in farm management systems.
The project focused on two different demonstrators. One was to show the application of handheld receivers in mapping out a parcel of land. The second demonstrated the use of a dedicated EGNOS receiver integrated with sensors and machine monitors.
For example FieldFact co-organised the PRECIES2007 GNSS-agriculture event held in July 2007 in Lelystad, the Netherlands. At the event FieldFact demonstrated how site-specific data can be used and collected using a PDA with GSM, a GNSS receiver and general packet radio service (GPRS).
FieldFact also demonstrated the use of GNSS on tractor guidance and spraying equipment. In the demonstration of precision spraying, overlap reduction was obvious, said van der Wal. Sections of the spraying booms shut off automatically when there is an overlap with a part of the field that has been sprayed already. Demonstrations were held in Poland, Czech Republic, Ireland and the Netherlands.
“Agriculture is ready and waiting for Galileo,” van der Wal said. “FieldFact played a role in knowledge transfer, application development and testing. These products can be transferred to operational systems.”
EGNOS is ready for use in agriculture
In another presentation Stefano Scarda, a policy officer with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, provided an update on the EU’s GNSS programmes.
He noted that EGNOS’s system architecture is now in place, with three geostationary satellites in operation, and the required ground-based support infrastructure.
“The key message I want to convey is EGNOS is operational, provides better accuracy than GPS, covers all of Europe, provides an open signal that free of charge for ever, and that receivers are now available,” he told the audience.
EGNOS is already broadcasting signals of excellent quality as confirmed by tests, he added. Currently EGNOS’ assets are being transferred from the European Space Agency to the European Community.
After the legal process is completed, the Community plans to sign a contract with an operator in the second half of 2009. The Commission is also studying whether to extend EGNOS’s geographical service to the Mediterranean area, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The whole European land mass is covered by the EGNOS system, providing a horizontal accuracy of one metre with the free open signal. For precision farming, EGNOS reduces the entry cost for farmers, he said.
“It is the right time for EGNOS to be used and we do invite stakeholders to reap the benefits,” he said.
Meanwhile Galileo, which has two initial test satellites in space, is on track to be operational by 2013, he said.
Listening to farmers
Other speakers at the Harvesting Galileo conference included Tania Runge, head of the COPA-COGECA secretariat, which represents farmers’ organisations in the EU. EGNOS and Galileo must be shown to improve farming, especially for those with small holdings who may not be able to afford the initial investment.
Simon Kay, who is with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, provided further details on the use of GNSS in regulated applications in agriculture. For example he noted that EU regulation now opens the door for the use of location-based services in programmes such as CAP.
“There are no legal barriers to the expanded use of location-based services across Europe,” he said. “There are few technological or market barriers that prevents the agricultural sector from applying GNSS.”
In fact, EGNOS is already used in field area measurement for subsidy control. He noted that one manufacturer has produced a hand held commercial GNSS receiver equipped for the EGNOS signal.
David van der Schans, a scientist of applied research at Wageningen University, showed how his studies using GNSS technologies could help farmers. The average farm crop often has a high degree of variability in quality even in the same field, he noted. A homogeneous product has a higher commercial value.
He estimated that the use of GNSS to automate the hoeing process could provide up to a 30% reduction in the amount of labour needed for organic farming. The use of GNSS for the variable seeding of potatoes allows a farmer to adapt the spacing of the crop according to the clay content of a particular location in order to get a more homogeneous product.
The EU has about 15 million farmers working on 160 million hectares of land. About seven million of them apply for EU community aid. About 70% of them farm on less than five hectares of land.