How farmers are improving crop performance with satellite technology

October 28, 2020

In my earlier blog post I explored the value and potential of plant breeding. I detailed how it is helping combat hunger and enabling farmers to increase yields, grow crops faster, and ensure crops are better suited to local environments. However, in addition to plant breeding, there is another set of important tools that come into play to improve performance. These are remote sensing systems. Such systems take advantage of Earth observation satellites, of which there are two main classes that best suit the task at hand – optical satellites that measure the sunlight reflected by the Earth’s surface and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that emits a pulse signal and measures electromagnetic changes and time of the response.

How is remote sensing used to improve crop performance?

With optical sensors, farmers create maps of homogeneous growing areas on their land. That is, areas that have the same characteristics for expected development and yield of a crop. With that map, growers can determine the optimum density of plants and the amount of fertilizer they need to apply. Both the amount of plants and fertilizer have a direct impact on the final crop yield as well as on the environmental impact. This is because by applying the right amount of fertilizer to each area, it results in less pollution, as the input nutrients are fully used by the plants, instead of being washed away by the rain into groundwater. These site-specific mappings are created using satellite time series that are freely available, thus ensuring a high end product at no, or relatively little, cost.

Another application is the monitoring of the crop cycle. Using vegetation indexes, it’s possible to follow the different steps of plant growth. At the emergence of seedlings, these indexes allow growers to determine if the planting work was carried out correctly. Later on in the growth phases, areas affected by pests or that have a nutrient deficiency can be spotted, allowing the remediation of these problems without applying the same treatment to the whole crop, but just to the affected areas. This reduces costs and the environmental impact. Finally, in the senescence stage, growers can accurately identify the moment for harvest without the need for field work.

With the SAR and optical sensor satellites it is also possible to determine the soil moisture. This impacts the irrigation control of the crop, providing alerts about possible future problems caused by excess or lack of water. Agronomists can use these early warnings to find the optimal solution, or determine which regions will need external inputs of food, due to droughts or floods.

In Globant’s Life Sciences studio we’ve been working with a key player in the agriculture industry to build a digital platform. This platform lets you integrate data from your farm/field, from different sources (manual data entry, satellite, drones) in order to aggregate it and present it in a way that is actionable for the user to make data-driven decisions. This means farmers and growers can get yield analysis, field region reports, field health imagery, manual seed scripts and fertility scripts. Mining and filtering such data is typically challenging, but we are creating an easy-to-use product with consolidated information ready for decision making that will lead to improvements in crop performance.

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How farmers are improving crop performance with satellite technology 2

Conclusion: Technology is playing an ever greater role in agriculture

In our last couple of articles, we’ve explored how new technologies are enabling agronomists and growers to make better decisions and increase crop performance. By collecting, sharing, and then utilizing data, we’re able to make fundamental changes to how farms operate, improving efficiency, lowering risk, and impact on the environment. We expect the use of this technology in the industry to only accelerate in the coming years and we look forward to sharing further insights about the work we are doing in the sector.

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