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5 Ways GIS is Transforming Agriculture and the Environment

What are the major implications of GIS for agriculture, the environment and preserving our earth in 2017?

Geospatial technology is transforming the agriculture industry in unimaginable ways. In only a few short years, the power and accessibility of digital mapping both on and offline has changed the way farmers and agricultural structures are doing their most basic tasks.

Geographic information systems (GIS) allow us to visualise, analyse and understand geographic data. They can show us which crops are thriving, how pollution is hindering and which fertilisers are enhancing.

With this kind of revolutionary technology in full swing, there has never been a better time for farmers, environmentalists, foresters and agriculture specialists to capitalise on productivity.

Agriculture and Farming

GIS has revolutionised a farmer’s work. With the help of expert GIS consultants, farmers are now able to access the latest satellite technology with precision agriculture.

However, there are simpler, cheaper and more accessible ways the power of location can be utilised by farmers themselves.

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Mobile Devices

Mobile mapping applications have evolved dramatically in the last few years, making paper maps and pens ancient history. Mobile apps work on hand held tablets or smartphones, reducing the need for bulky computers or complicated surveying equipment when out in the field.

Mappt™ is a mobile GIS data collection app which enables users to create, edit, store, and share geospatial information. Farmers can use and handheld device to drop a pin or mark a specific location on a digital map. Using a lightweight, compact device such as a tablet or phone empowers farmers with the capacity to easily collect their own data.

Mappt’s receptive interface allows farmers with minimal training to use drop-down forms at each location point, noting a piece of information or attribute such as the type of fertilizer used, the condition of the crop or the topography of the land.

Some variables farmers may need to collect and analyse include:

  • soil type
  • elevation (topography)
  • crop yield
  • crop quality
  • field boundaries
  • management zones
  • remotely sensed imagery
  • weed and pest locations
  • historical land use

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compact

GPS

Global Positioning Systems or GPS are freely available and built in to most compact devices. A GPS displays your exact location on the earth’s surface by picking up data instantaneously sent from several satellites orbiting the globe.

Mappt’s GPS can be used to track a job out in the field. It’s ideal for remote locations as it works completely offline, can be paused and restarted at any time, and runs in the background while you collect other data. For example, a farmer may use GPS to pinpoint designated positions in the field to collect soil samples. This information can be logged in a handheld device before, during and after samples are collected, whilst tracking a person’s every move.

Geotagging

Another benefit of using a hand-held device with an inbuilt camera is being able to capture photographic evidence. Geotagging images collected in the field to their exact location provides farmers with additional information and offers a reference for future crop analysis and comparison. Thus, improving overall accuracy and efficiencies.

Geofencing

There are disasters to avoid in agricultural planning that can have a detrimental effect if inaccuracy occurs: droughts, drainage, roads, insects and floods. Their heavy impacts can be avoided through GIS assisted strategic planning.

Mapping is used to examine and evaluate these attributes to ensure maximum accuracy when identifying new areas to plant crops or make existing yields more efficient.

When working in the field, separating zones is also crucial as it’s not always clear where your boundaries end and your neighbours’ begins.

Mappt™ allows you to not only draw lines and polygons, but colour code areas and set warning visual and audio alarms. Once a geofence is created, a farmer will be alerted with an alarm notification if a boundary is breached. This ensures you do not disturb land that doesn’t belong to you or plant crops in a restricted area.

geofence

GIS for Climate Change

We know conservation and environmental management is imperative for the sustainability of the earth, especially in today’s rapidly evolving technological world.

Recent history has taught us that human impact can have a dramatic effect on the environment as well as shifting global climates. This is creating complex challenges for businesses in every industry – particularly agriculture.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, agricultural practices are responsible for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with contributing factors including fertilisers, livestock, burning of savanna and agricultural residues, and ploughing.

Farming our food does not always give back to the earth.

Climate change is anticipated to affect crop production in several ways, but most impedingly, precipitation and temperature changes. Rainfall and temperatures may shorten or lengthen the growing season or cause an increase in droughts and flooding. Because of these environmental changes, crop prices could skew and become economically nonviable.

GIS plays a fundamental role in the ongoing challenge to reduce and cope with the effects of climate change, specifically determining what crops we sow and where to maximise land efficiency.

Below are some of the ways GIS can assist with plotting relief:

  • Ensure accurate reporting with improved data collection
  • Improve decision making
  • Increase productivity with streamlined work processes
  • Provide better data analysis and presentation options
  • Model dynamic environmental phenomena
  • Create predictive scenarios for environmental impact studies
  • Automate regulatory compliance processes
  • Disseminate maps and share map data across the internet

Accumulating data on the problem and adjusting relief and contingency methods in accordance to this data, is how GIS can play a major role in shaping a solution.

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What does it mean for our future?

In the past, it was difficult for farmers to know how and which farming methods were working efficiently due to the continuous variations and irregularities across the land.

Today, technological innovations such as GIS and mobile mapping have transformed common agricultural systems and revolutionised field efficiency and productivity.

With this kind of technology in our pockets, mobile GIS will expectantly continue to improve production for farmers in a way that is sustainable in the future and hopefully provide a reliable source of food for all.

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siobhan-profile2Siobhan Herne
Marketing and Communications

Siobhan has no background in GIS, she’s a beginner, just like you. Follow her stories for an easier digest of all things geospatial.

Sources

http://www.environmentalscience.org/agriculture-science-gis

http://www.sugarresearch.com.au/icms_docs/178430_GIS_and_Precision_Agriculture_IS14015.pdf

http://www.americansentinel.edu/blog/2012/03/14/farmers-use-gis-technology-for-a-growing-world/

http://www.hitachi.com/rev/pdf/2009/r2009_06_106.pdf

http://www.gps.gov/applications/agriculture/

http://www.pitneybowes.com/us/location-intelligence/case-studies/use-location-intelligence-to-turn-big-data-into-business-insight.html

http://www.gpsalliance.org/agriculture.aspx

https://theconversation.com/farmers-of-the-future-will-utilize-drones-robots-and-gps-37739

 

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Mappt Infographic

We thought to make our licensing system a little easier to understand, so we created this easy to follow infographic to illustrate.

GPS Tips and Tricks in Mappt for Android

One of the most-used features in Mappt is the ability to capture location data from internal or external GPS devices. With Mappt, users can record their movements throughout an area, turning this GPS-captured information into features.  These features can then be manipulated and annotated, then ultimately exported as Shapefile or KML, to be sent via email or uploaded to cloud-based technologies.

Based on the feedback we’ve received from Mappt users “in the field,” we’ve decided to highlight some tips and tricks when working with the GPS functionality in Mappt.

Image of a Baboon Sitting on a Cliff

Clearly lost, this baboon ponders the power of Mappt’s GPS capabilities.

Tip #1: “Walking Out” an Area

Did you know that, when you are in “polygon drawing mode” or “line drawing mode,” you can drop a new vertex at your current location? This is handy for “walking out” an area when you are in the field.  In the image below, I took a casual stroll around a sand pit, adding vertices at my current GPS location to a polygon as I went.

Partially-drawn polygon being mapped from the user's movements.

A partially-drawn boundary of the sand pit, using points dropped at my GPS position.

The resulting polygon is a bit messy, being subject to GPS inaccuracies, but could easily be tidied up within Mappt, or exported and tidied up on a desktop machine.

Polygon Created by "Walking Out" the Boundary

The completed polygon.

This minor feature provides a range of applications, from mapping boundaries as demonstrated above, to measuring paths or areas, to simply logging landmarks as markers on a map.

Tip #2: Take a Break on Large Trips

Mappt is capable of handling captured GPS paths with tens of thousands of vertices, but eventually performance will degrade under such weight.  We recommend pausing, saving then restarting the GPS tracker every hour or so, which will split your path into smaller segments.  These can later be stitched back together if necessary.  This will also allow you to hide unimportant segments using the visibility toggle button, which reduces the workload on Mappt and promotes responsiveness.

Screenshot of a segment of a captured GPS path with over 7000 points

Mappt will remain responsive, even when working with captured GPS paths with thousands of points

The rate of vertex collection will depend on several factors, such as speed and overall GPS activity, so you may want to experiment with the amount of time between saves.

Tip #3: Ditch the GPS and Use High-Res Imagery For Increased Accuracy

This tip may seem a bit out of place in a blog post about GPS tips, but it all falls under the category of georeferencing features in Mappt.  If you have high-res and accurately-georeferenced imagery of your remote location loaded into Mappt, you can use visual inspection of your surroundings to accurately place features on to the map. For example, you could determine your location by picking a nearby tree or rock formation and finding it in your offline imagery loaded into Mappt.  You can then be sure that a feature placed at that location in Mappt will have reasonable geospatial accuracy (as long as the georeferencing of the imagery is accurate!).

Tip #4: Mappt Will Continue to Capture GPS Data in the Background

As long as you leave the GPS tracking enabled within Mappt, it will continue to capture GPS data, even if you minimise or switch to another app.

Screenshot of the Mappt Background Service notification area item

Mappt will put an item in the Notification Area to let you know it is capturing GPS data.

Note that if you exit Mappt from within the menu (Menu -> Exit Mappt), Mappt will shut down the GPS and stop capturing points before it exits.

Useful apps (from other people) for Mappt users

When developing software, it’s important not to overload with features that the majority of people don’t have a need for. Instead we are working to make the best Android based software for getting your data from the field to the office.

So rather than adding a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles, we have been looking for Play store apps that are either free or low cost and can be useful tools in the field for Mappt users.  We collected a short list below of useful 3rd party apps but will add and update this as we find or are told about apps that can help you do your job.

As these are 3rd party apps we can’t guarantee they will work on your tablet or be supported in the future but all are pretty popular with a good user base.  Any problems or questions about these apps should be directed to the developer

If you have any to add to the list, just let us know and we’ll have a look and if we like them we’ll add them to the list.

So here they are:

Bluetooth GPS (Free)
An absolute necessity if you want to tie in a GPS that’s more accurate than the one found in most tablets.  Just run the app and connect with your Bluetooth enabled GPS and watch the GPS error circle shrink. Mappt automatically uses this signal, overriding the inbuilt GPS. Great price too.

Clinometer + bubble level (Free / $0.99)
Great in built clinometer / level for looking at geological and other structures and saves you carrying an extra tool around but you will have to add the data to Mappt manually.

GPS Status (Free / $3.49)
Great little tool for working out what your GPS and other general locational data including:

  • GPS error (m)
  • GPS satellites with a fix / available
  • Pitch / roll
  • Altitude (MSL)
  • Brightness (lux)
  • Lat / Long
  • Orientation / heading

Unfortunately the free version has the occasional annoying ad at the bottom. The PRO version removes the ads and adds additional features including:

  • show/store/edit multiple waypoints and use them on the Radar for navigation; and
  • pressure, rotation, temperature, humidity values (if device supports them).

If you are also using Bluetooth GPS , this app will show your external GPS error margin but not the satellite fix data.

AirDroid (Free)
Great app for linking your android tablet to a PC over a wireless network (or over the internet) and comes with a number of really useful features including:

  • Desktop SMS Send & receive SMS from the comfort of your computer. Faster typing and navigation with the full keyboard and large screen.
  • Files and Media Move photos, videos, ringtones and any other files on and off Android, all without a USB cable.
  • Find Phone / Device  Locate and lock your Android when it’s lost. Cannot get it back? Simply wipe all data remotely and the innovative intruder feature that takes a photo of the “intruder” who tried but failed to unlock your device.
  • Manage Apps Easier way of app search, installation and apk export.
  • Camera and Screenshot See through the lens of your Android camera, front and back. Or stream the screen of your Android in nearly real-time.
  • Phone Calls, Clipboard , Url transfer and more Call contact, share clipboard content, push url to Android and more features awaiting your discovery.

ES File Explorer File Manager (Free)

Judged by our developers as the best explorer and file manager available for Android it allows easy linking up to Windows based systems all-round the best tool of its type for Android, with over 10 million users, it’s hard to argue with those numbers.

 

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Using an External GPS Unit with Mappt

During the development of Mappt for Android, we tested Mappt on a range of devices.  Much to our disappointment, we discovered that the quality of the internal GPS hardware varies greatly across devices.

The accuracy of your GPS unit may not matter when you are dodging angry dogs on your daily jog, but definitely matters when you are geo-tagging assets in the field.

blog_gps_lost_glasses

Despite what it looks like, I wasn’t looking for a dropped contact lens.

To overcome this issue, you can use a commonly-available external GPS unit via Bluetooth.  While Mappt does not include native support for external GPS units, there is a workaround available.

The workaround requires the installation of a free app from the app store, as well as a minor settings change.  The app makes use of a feature, named “Mock Locations”, which is intended for app developers to test their software, but in our case, allows us to easily make use of an external GPS unit.

Step 1 – Find a device

In our testing, we used a Qstarz GPS unit, but we expect any unit will work, so long as it can be paired to an Android device.

Step 2 – Pair the device

Pair your bluetooth device with your tablet.

Step 3 – Install the free app

Download and install Bluetooth GPS – a free app from the market.

Step 4 – Run the app

Run the installed app.  If required, in which case the app should tell you, you will need to go to your tablet’s settings and enable Mock Locations.

Back in the app, check the box for “Enable Mock GPS Provider.”

Select your external device and click the Connect button. You should see it start capturing data.

Step 5 – Profit!

Run Mappt as normal and enable the GPS by clicking the satellite icon in the top action bar.  Mappt will use the best GPS available to it, which in this case should be your external device.  Win!

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Much better!

There are a wide range of Android devices and an equally wide range of external GPS units available.  Thankfully, the method described in this post will allow you to overcome shoddy GPS readings!