First Fix: How GNSS helps farmers’ profits

April 12, 2023  - By
Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio

Precision agriculture (PA) — which uses electronic information to better manage spatial and temporal variability in crops, livestock, forestry and other biological systems — is profitable, as proven by the rapid and widespread adoption of GNSS guidance for mechanized agriculture. Other enablers of PA include variable rate technology (VRT), remote-sensing using satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, geographic information systems (GIS) and soil sampling.

In my introduction to our January cover story, I requested pointers to any “independent, reliable and comprehensive study” as to PA’s return on investment. In response, Professor Won Suk Lee, of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering of the University of Florida Gainesville, introduced me to Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, who has more than 30 years of worldwide experience in agricultural research, teaching, outreach and leadership and was the president of the International Society of Precision Agriculture. His research focuses on the economics of agricultural technology.

Dr. Lowenberg-DeBoer wrote to me that “thousands of studies of profitability of precision agriculture” using “a wide range of methods and assumptions” arrive at “a relatively consistent set of conclusions.” He detailed them in a chapter on the economics of PA he wrote for a book published in 2019 (Precision agriculture for sustainability, edited by Dr. John Stafford, Silsoe Solutions, UK and published by Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing) and pointed out to me that additional studies of the topic conducted since then have not altered its conclusions.

Lowenberg-DeBoer used adoption of PA as a proxy for its profitability, because, he wrote, “Farming is a business and technology is adopted if it provides benefits for the farmer and farm household.” He focused on PA for crops on relatively large-scale mechanized farms, but the same principles and general conclusions apply to livestock, forestry and other biological production systems and to medium and small farms.

“Since GNSS guidance was introduced for ground-based agricultural equipment in the late 1990s,” he wrote, “almost all economic studies have shown positive economic benefits which could be quantified and substantial qualitative benefits which were more difficult to measure.”
He reported that within about 10 years of the introduction of both lightbars and autosteer, GNSS was used by about 80% of the dealers. Adoption of PA sensors, on the other hand, was slower. “While GNSS guidance is being adopted quickly almost wherever agriculture is mechanized, VRT is more likely to be found in ‘hot spots’ where the profit potential and soil variability combine to motivate adoption.”

Advances in autonomous robots will further revolutionize agriculture, Lowenberg-DeBoer predicted. “Implementing cropping tasks with swarms of small robots will change agronomic practices and the geography of agriculture. For example, with robotic pesticide application, it might be possible to spray each pest individually instead of broadcast application. This could reduce the amount of pesticide applied by [more than] 90% and reduce the negative effects on beneficial species.”

For more on how GNSS is central to PA and how Lowenberg-DeBoer’s vision is beginning to take shape, see “Integrity Is Integral to Precision Agriculture.

Matteo Luccio | Editor-in-Chief

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.