Green crops are happy crops- red crops need attention. Image credit: precisionagricultu.re

Apr 26, 2014 Precision Farming - how space tech is helping to feed the World

Sen—It is often pointed out that money invested in space technology would be better spent combating problems here on Earth first—problems such as feeding the hungry, and helping the poor.

There are many aspects of space technology that already benefit people on Earth. These technologies are referred to as 'spin-offs', and there are currently over 2500 of these technologies documented on NASA’s spin-off website. But not all of these spin-offs benefit everyone. Maybe you don’t need a new golf club constructed from shape memory alloys that were designed for the space station. Or maybe you are lucky enough to live in a part of the world that doesn’t require the refrigeration of life saving vaccines.

One thing that we do all have in common however, is our need for a sustainable food supply. The population is growing, and so is our appetite. The resources needed to produce food are decreasing, so engineers and scientists are constantly looking for new ways to keep ahead of this potential food security crisis. This is where precision farming comes in.

Precision farming involves using satellites and their sensors to monitor farmers’ land, enabling the farmers to determine the state of their crops, soil, pH, water content and other variables needed for optimum crop production (and revenue). In combination with GPS/GNSS data, this information is provided to the farmers in the form of a geographically accurate map image highlighting areas of land that need attention.

For example, a farmer may be using fertilizer over his or her entire field. A quick look at a satellite generated image can identify these areas and allow the farmer to spread the fertilizer in only the places that require it. This can increase crop yield evenly all over the field. This can lead to more efficient expenditure on fertilizers, and the combined effect is an increase in revenue for the farmer.

Water is another precious asset in crop growth. Over watering unnecessarily can kill crops. Similarly, under watering them can have the same effect. By monitoring images achieved from the various spectral data over a period of time, farmers can dynamically adjust the amounts of water required, increasing both yield and revenue while reducing the water used.

Precision farming is a value-added product. This means that existing data sets from satellites already in orbit can be merged to provide new, useful products using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software. The farmer doesn’t even need to live in a country with a space program—these services can be accessed from the user’s own home for a nominal subscription fee, much like satellite television.

Cropio is one such subscription-based service provider, and a simple breakdown of their service can be found at this link.

3 Landsat images of the same field, showing stressed crops, and plants with excessive nitrogen.

The right panel shows just the near infrared band processed so that the yellow, green and teal colors show stressed plants and the blue and purple show healthier plants. The magenta color shows areas with excess nitrogen and the lighter green zones are sugar beets under stress. Image credit: Landsat 5/NASA.

Combining this satellite map data with sensors on the ground and GPS receivers on farm machinery such as combine harvesters and even airborne crop dusters can provide close to real time feedback to machinery operators, allowing dynamic and variable responses to changing crop situations. Some farmers have taken this one step further, and have fully integrated their tractors with GPS and driverless control systems, creating driverless tractors which save on that other precious commodity, time.

The spectral data can of course be combined with information from other space assets, such as weather satellites. Not only can farmers see signatures in the infrared spectrum indicating how much water crops have received, they can now see when rain is due and for how long that rain will fall.

American studies on precision farming have shown an increase in yield by up to nearly 16% when used on corn crops. Similarly, reports from the Tamil Nadu Precision Farming Project in India have reported increases in yield of over 83% for carrots, 37.5% for cauliflowers and over 125% for maize crops!

The numbers really speak for themselves, and as mentioned previously these increases are the result of value-added products. Not a single new satellite had to be launched to benefit from this space tech—new uses were found for old satellites. Naturally, this technology is transferrable to any location in the world, which is good news for countries experiencing drought and famine.

This is the beauty of space technology. It is very difficult to determine when spin-off tech will materialize, but when it does, it benefits everyone.

Precision farming is still very much in its infancy, but the market value is set to rise to $3.7 billion USD by 2018. With figures like that, it is hard to see precision farming disappearing anytime soon, and that is a good thing for everybody involved.

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