Agritechnica 2015: Soil mapping way of the future for agriculture

By: Carene Chong, Video by: Carene Chong

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In a corner of Hall 15 at Agritechnica 2015 parked a shiny red Sikorsky S-76B helicopter which was a hot topic among visitors at the world’s largest farm machinery trade fair.

More than just a stand attraction, the helicopter is an important tool for Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) to conduct airborne geophysical surveys for earth and soil mapping purposes.

It was on display as part of Agritechnica‘s "Smart Farming – Digital Cropping" feature which showcases a wide array of digital farming solutions that leverages on interpretation of collected data, whether obtained from above (airborne or satellite) or on the ground.

While the helicopter is deployed mainly to carry out geological researches  such as determining electrical resistivity of the ground to assess groundwater potential, it is also equipped to measure soil salinity and quality which is valuable information for farmers in order to make better cropping decisions.

"This is quite a complex system in which we have various sensors installed to scan the ground," explains BGR geologist and scientist Dr. Malte Ibs-von Seht.

"We have a system called radiometrics or gamma spectrometry installed in the helicopter which is normally used for mineral exploration."

He adds the soil measuring device, called a gamma spectrometer, measures the contents of radioactive elements in the soil including potassium, uranium and thorium.

"The contents of these elements can tell us something about the soil quality and certain soil parameters," he says.

"The information which is obtained over a large area using the helicopter will give farmers useful information about the quality of their soils."

As soil quality, nutrient supply and water availability largely affects farm production; such information will be invaluable in helping farmers make well-informed decisions on their property.

However, von Seht says it will be some time before the service hits the market as there are still refinements to be made to the system for better accuracy.

"If you do measurements on the ground you get a very precise image for every site you’re measuring, but if you’re measuring at higher altitudes, for example 20 or 40m above the ground, the image you’re getting is much more blurred because the footprint of the sensor gets bigger the higher you are," he explains.

"On the other hand, we can scan a large area in a very short time because the helicopter can hover over an area very quickly and give us a lot of data."

Von Seht adds he is confident in seeing these surveying services and data made available to the public in one to two years’ time.

"Once these techniques are developed, there will be private companies who will offer these services to farmers," he says.

"I think Australia is very experienced in airborne geophysics and some very good researchers come from Australia."

In fact, closer to home, several companies such as Thomson Aviation in New South Wales and GPX Surveys in Western Australia are already offering airborne and ground geophysical surveying services for a wide range of applications including oil and mineral exploration; geothermal mapping and land management.

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