For Farmers, A Picture is Worth More Than a Thousand Data Sets

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The market for space-procured business data is expected to be worth more than $1 trillion by 2028. We look into how satellite data is playing out in the agricultural field.

By Jeffrey Hill of Via Satellite

There are several large orchards and tree farms scattered among the hills at the eastern edge of Pennsylvania along the Delaware River — managed and maintained by the same family and the same set of rules for more than 150 years. The rules to farming in the region may or may not be written down or archived. They are, essentially, based on visual information, processed through years of experience and instinct. For example, a pair of human eyes observes the yellowing leaves of a walnut tree, and a diagnosis of Thousand Cankers Disease is reached even before fingers get a chance to touch and process the soft, dark spots inside its withering limbs. This is a disease created by a fungus carried by tiny, burrowing Walnut Twig Beetles, which the human eye can only see up close. The human eye can’t zoom out to see the larger swarm of beetles, or observe the direction they are moving, or produce a time-lapse slideshow of images that display the larger environmental impact of the blight.

One Eastern Pennsylvania farmer in the region says the condition of tree crowns are often the first visible signs of poor health or disease. “It’s more likely you’ll see discolored leaves and thinning foliage before you ever notice the insect causing the problem,” he says, pulling out his smartphone and swiping through pictures of tree tops taken at a curious overhead angle. “I took these photos from a drone. My son bought me one a couple of years ago and I now use about three or four to keep an eye on the orchards.” The farmer asked not to be named for the story because he hasn’t yet registered his drones with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). When asked if he had ever used or considered using satellite imagery or sensing technology to monitor his fields, he says he hasn’t heard much about the technology, other than Google Maps, but adds that he wouldn’t be opposed to using data analytics to manage his farm. “Farmers may have a reputation for sticking with the old, but we constantly have to modernize and evolve to stay afloat,” he says. “It’s even more important now with the weather changing. It’s early June, we’re in the mountains and its 100 degrees for the third day in a row. I can’t say that I know how that’s going to play out.” Approximately 40 percent of the United States is made up of farmland. Environmental uncertainty of this size and scale can have a crippling effect on even the most robust economies. How can satellites help manage those uncertainties? Some would say through good, old-fashioned research and disruptive engineering. Multispectral cameras on satellites are now powerful enough to monitor crop production, evaluate developments and shifts in the physical environment, and produce highly focused weather forecasts with incredible detail. By saving farms and helping to manage and preserve our natural environment, satellites may also be responsible for saving millions (and potentially billions) of human lives.

Read the full blog post on the Via Satellite website here.


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