There are many movies where satellites offer scary surveillance capabilities. Of course, it is science fiction, but with the latest commercial satellites some level of space surveillance of crops and fields can be achieved. Besides the Big Brother effect, farmers can also benefit from the satellite imagery with increasing detail that become readily available at increasing cadence.
Today, details of 50 cm and smaller can be detected from space from commercial satellite operators. In itself not new, as we know this from aerial photography and drones too.
The difference is that the space industry now puts hundreds of those so-called nano satellites in orbit, creating a very high revisit capability. This takes us from snapshots to motion: we see the farming activities taking place in (near) real time.
Administrations (re)discover the capabilities of satellites in support of their regulations and eco-schemes. In Europe, administrations from 9 different EU Member States work together in the NIVA4CAP project, looking at ways to ingest these new technologies in their operation. They are now exploring the public data from Europe’s Copernicus program.
Although the six-day revisit of the 10m pixels of Sentinels does not compare to today’s commercial capabilities, it is a huge improvement over the ‘snapshot’ approach from the past. While very, very high-resolution imagery has always been classified on its detection or object recognition capability, the cadence, or revisit frequency is the satellite trait that is more important for monitoring.
The combination of very high resolution and very high cadence creates a strong mechanism for surveillance or even forensics in case one wants to build evidence for misconduct. So, satellite data becomes a key asset for administrations to identify compliance with regulations and schemes. And because of the open and free data policy, these capabilities are not restricted to governments. Now anybody, from insurance to NGOs, from data science startup to BigAg can use the satellite data in their operations. Basically, you can’t hide from the satellite.
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At the same time this very, very high-resolution imagery helps farmers in their crop management. It helps early detection of anomalies and will be an excellent base for many different task maps. And the very high cadence implies that we can actually see when fields being ploughed, and crops being seeded, irrigated, fertilised and harvested.
Satellite data will also help farmers to build up a dataset for analysis on how the farm performs
Now obviously, these specific capabilities don’t add value to the farmer – since she knows very well what happened on the farm. But they become relevant proof when farmers apply for instance for specific eco-schemes, that require activities to take place or to take not place: grassland conversion, ploughing or other tilling activity are not appreciated in any carbon credit program; delayed mowing of grassland is required to give young meadow birds a chance and a catch crop directly after harvest prevents unnecessary nutrient losses to groundwater. The satellite data will also help farmers to build up a dataset for analysis on how the farm performs.
So all outdoor farming is now exposed to everybody. How can we all benefit? Maybe the easiest answer is in the so-called carbon farming, an upcoming policy frame where society rewards farmers for increasing the soil organic carbon instead of contributing to CO2 emissions.
Indeed, farming can play a big role in mitigating CO2 emissions. While plants thrive by higher CO2 concentrations, they fix it in their tissue and roots and plant rest materials enrich the soil with organic carbon.
The past decades show how intense farming practices caused a structural decline in soil organic carbon, which is not only a greenhouse gas emission issue, but it is also damaging the soil resilience to adverse weather conditions. Decarbonised soils cannot buffer water and nutrients and show up as dead substrate with no soil biology.
So, these intense farming practices also increased the impact of climate change on farming. That is why carbon farming is a wonderful idea: it will store CO2 in soil organic carbon instead of bringing it in the atmosphere and at the same time it regenerates healthy, resilient soils that deliver a great ecosystem service by offering a protective environment for crops: absorbing more moisture in rainstorms and providing it in dry periods. Same with nutrients.
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What has this to do with satellite surveillance? Everything. The satellites will help farmers to make the right decisions in crop management that will regenerate soils. It can benchmark between different practices. It will monitor progress on organic carbon stocks. And as the world is watching, consumers can be assured of their food being produced in a responsible way. They may even want to pay a better price for this transparency.
Satellites are not a threat but a chance to innovate farming
So here is a multi-sided benefit for very, very high-resolution satellite imagery: help farmers do the right thing and show the world that farming is done right. Satellites are not a threat but a chance to innovate farming.
And when you step out of your door, just look up and smile for the picture!
Webinar: “Remote Sensing and Privacy”
On the 21st January, the Community on Agricultural Performance Innovation and Geo-Information (CAPIGI) organises a webinar on “Remote Sensing and Privacy”, addressing the topic of the latest developments in commercial satellite data provision, and the challenges it might have towards privacy. Register here.