Promoters of optical crop-sensing systems have been talking about a just-around-the-corner heyday for almost 10 years. But relatively few farmers have made use of the new technology, especially when compared to the potential acreage it could serve across the Corn Belt.

Now optical sensing systems mounted on farm machinery, airplanes and satellites may be on the verge of more widespread adoption, sensor technology companies say.

Until last year, when it was joined by new sensor systems from Ag Leader and Topcon, Trimble’s GreenSeeker system was the sole player in machine-mounted optical crop sensors in the U.S. The entry of two new players and Trimble’s purchase of GreenSeeker developer NTech Industries in 2009 are lending credibility to optical sensing.

“It is not mainstream yet. But the adoption of optical sensing systems by major precision ag companies has bolstered our sales,” says Russ Linhart, a GreenSeeker sales specialist for Trimble, who held a similar post for NTech. “The technology has enough credibility that mainline companies have picked it up. So farmers feel some safety in adopting the technology.”

Satellite-based optical sensing systems also may be primed for a growth spurt. Private companies are in the process of deploying new satellite systems that can fly over key farming areas every week or less — rather than in today’s typical 16-day schedule. This could improve the usefulness of satellite imagery.

“Along with use of optical sensing systems for variable-rate applications, we have seen even more interest in using imagery for crop monitoring,” says Luke Faleide of Agri ImaGIS Technologies, a major provider of satellite imagery and image-analysis software tools. “That is something that more timely imagery would help.”

In contrast to machine and satellite-based systems, aerial optical sensing systems appear to have taken a step back in recent years. Although imagery taken from airplanes is available in many areas, no large providers have stepped into the Corn Belt marketplace since John Deere introduced its OptiGro Imaging System in 2006 and left the business barely a year later.