Farming composite showing a satellite 'beaming' down to fields on Earth

Farming from space: space technology in agriculture

As innovation drives down the cost of getting a satellite into orbit, we explore how space technology is boosting global food and agricultural production.

Before the dawn of the industrial age, an average UK farm may have had a team of 20 men and 20 horses. As technology progressed and as further advances were made, this might have become 20 men and a tractor. Now, as innovation more usually associated with space exploration is being increasingly adopted by agriculture, it could be just one tractor: and a driverless one at that.

Satellites have an important role to play in what has been hailed as the ‘rise of the smart farm’ - a shift towards precision control of food production to allow farmers to produce more with less. According to Farmers Weekly magazine, approximately 60 per cent of Britain’s farmland is already being managed by the likes of sensor systems, analytics, cameras and drones, and the UK government sees significant potential in the field - if you pardon the pun. Agri-science is one of the ‘eight great technologies’ chosen to drive growth in the UK economy over the coming years, and ‘satellites’ is another.

Government research shows that £8.2bn has been added to the UK economy by space industries since 2009 - growth of 16 per cent - while food production is the country’s largest single manufacturing sector. And the sorts of technologies that were previously available only to very big agricultural operations, from auto-steer vehicles to farm-scale weather forecasting, are now more realistic options for smaller farms too.

David Telford, an agriculture specialist at the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which was established by Innovate UK to build better links between science, creativity and business, said a ‘perfect storm’ of factors has paved the way for the widespread adoption of satellite technology in farming and food production.

“The United Nations predicts food production will need to increase by 70 per cent to cope with a world population of more than nine billion by 2020. As well as the need to feed more people, we face problems such as reducing land use every year due to urbanisation, climate change and increasing energy costs, on which agriculture is particularly dependent. To cope with all this, technology is needed, so there is an agri-tech revolution going on at the moment.”

Funding bids are currently being sought by Innovate UK and the Natural Environment Research Council in an attempt to hasten this area of innovation. The Satellites to Improve Agri-Food Systems competition, which runs until 24 February 2016, will see a total of £3.75m invested in collaborative R&D projects and feasibility studies that link the two areas of innovation: satellite applications and agriculture and food. Of particular of interest to Telford and colleagues are creative ideas that break new ground in precision agriculture, adding to an already-established area of development.

So are we likely to be munching on satellite-enabled Sunday roast veg or enjoying a burger from a cow reared on a space-tech-minded farm? What is already happening?

“Agriculture has been a key beneficiary of the 200+ non-military operational satellites already looking at Earth,” says Telford.

“Precision agriculture is the use of technology to make more precise, measured and suitable farming decisions. Nowadays, we have much larger fields: fields of 100 acres [40ha] when that was the size of an entire farm in the past. Within that space, one part might be much wetter than another; there might be varying nutrient states and different soil types. Satellite technology allows farmers to see those variations and better adapt to deal with them, for example, identifying areas of weaker growth and applying fertiliser as required.”

Auto-steering tractors

Also being widely adopted is satellite-enabled auto-steer technology. Autonomous farm vehicles can be accurately controlled to follow set paths to ensure that no section of the field is missed when ploughing or seeding. Vladimir Stoiljkovic, business development manager at the Oxfordshire-based Satellite Applications Catapult, says: “Tractors have moved from being purely ‘farm machinery’ to high-tech mobile control centres with devices that enable accurate ploughing, fertilising and harvesting. In the longer term, fully autonomous tractors that can sow, fertilise and crop will be commonly seen on our farms.”

Satellite technology is also equipping farmers to better deal with an age-old foe: the weather. Analysis of satellite imagery provides climate, weather, farm and field-level information for both private and public sector users. Stoiljkovic says that “weather forecasting is, of course, already massively dependent on the interpretation of many kinds of satellite data and imagery. Now, highly complex computer models are being used to assimilate this data, to monitor and predict weather conditions and longer-term climate trends on a global and increasingly down to a regional and even farm scale.”

Information transfer

Integrated communications is another key area of progress, particularly outside the UK. “Although UK mobile phone coverage is good, there will always be significant areas on farms and throughout the food supply chain where terrestrial coverage is limited,” adds Stoiljkovic. “In more remote parts of the world, satellites provide the only way of communicating information to and from farmers and other agri-businesses. Logistics and transport operators will see a significant improvement through satellite tracking as there are many ‘black’ spots as cargo travels around the world.”

Global shake-ups in the world of satellite technology are bringing rapid change. While the US has GPS (Global Positioning System), the European Union is developing its own system, Galileo. Andy Powell, who works in the space team at KTN, said: “The European one is interesting to explore because it’s the first that is not military controlled. It’s owned by the EU, so is funded by the taxes you and I pay, and the data from that will be free to use for EU companies.”

The Copernicus programme, a partnership between the European Commission and European Space Agency that is designed to provide accurate and timely information about the environment, will also produce free-to-use data, potentially invaluable to farmers and food producers alike. But perhaps some of the greatest strides satellite technology is likely to bring will be in developing economies. Powell has been in discussions with the UK India Business Council about using satellites to tackle the country’s well-documented irrigation challenge.

“Because the monsoon season is when much of their water comes, Indian farmers need to track where that water is and make sure that it’s being stored,” says Powell. “The whole of their year and their crop health is based around this. Satellite imaging enables them to see where the water is and plan irrigation to make sure that it gets to where it needs to be.”

Likewise in regions of Africa where infrastructure is poor, satellite imaging can capture geographical information and crop health data, for example, much more quickly than monitoring from a vehicle. While cloud cover previously posed a problem, it can now be overcome through the use of synthetic aperture radar instruments on satellites or aircraft. Already, this has been used around the world in drought prediction, water management, pest and disease mapping and yield prediction contexts.

The benefits are being felt up and down the supply chain too. For crop buyers such as supermarkets, improved knowledge of likely harvest dates and quality enables more effective management of their supply chains, and reduces ‘brand risk’. Satellite-garnered data may be used to inform the likes of ‘field to freezer’ claims emblazoned across packaging and helps supermarkets meet consumers’ growing desire to know the provenance of food.

“Traceability and provenance is all-important today after scares such as Horsegate [the 2013 horse-meat contamination scandal],” notes Powell. “Understanding exactly where food has come from is useful to food sellers, as is data on food miles and CO2 costs. Companies that ship high-value food products around the world are also keen to keep track of exactly where their products are.”

Seed manufacturers are using improved feedback on growing conditions and results to improve development, while insurance and commodity traders have also seized upon satellite-gleaned data. Pricing varies by quality and yield, so the more information financial firms have on these, the stronger their position. Satellite data can also help provide rapid loss estimates after disasters.

So what are the barriers to widespread adoption? One is that those working in food and agriculture don’t necessarily realise what potential is out there, explains KTN’s Telford.

“I’m coming from the agriculture side of things, and I’m surprised by how much technology there is, so one barrier is bringing the two sectors together, which we’re working on. Agriculture is also often a relatively low-margin industry, so technology needs to be affordable. And farming is already a very complex business: farmers are busy and often have minimal labour, so tech needs to be something simple that can be easily incorporated into the existing business, machinery and computer systems.”

But Telford stresses that, as more data becomes available, more farmers are set to benefit. What was previously only available to very big farms is now often viable for mid-sized farms too, and some in satellite technology are driving for a yet more widespread application.

Ryan Schacht is an agriculture expert on the business development team at San Francisco-based Planet Labs. Planet wants to democratise satellite data by making it affordable to subsistence farmers, NGOs and researchers, as well as players in the sustainability sector. Through its Open Regions programme, it has made an initial commitment of $60m towards making imagery of selected regions accessible online. The first is California.

The company is taking a more cost-effective approach to satellite technology too, says Schacht. “We use as many off-the-shelf (often consumer-grade) parts as possible when designing and building satellites. Our satellites are small: only 10 × 10 × 30cm in size. This helps us launch for less, more often. We’re vertically integrated, too. We design, build, and operate satellites; maintain our ground station network; and develop the software that delivers satellite imagery data to customers same-day. Keeping everything in-house allows us to make changes to our satellite and software technology quickly and less expensively.”

Satellite technology may sound an expensive outlay, but could pay for itself in the long term. Researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) are working on ‘virtual fencing’ which involves fitting cattle with collars pre-programmed with exclusion zones. As well as enabling farmers to keep track of their herds remotely, animals can also be nudged away from certain areas, whether a dangerous road, a corner in which poisonous weeds have taken root, or a spot where grass needs to regrow. A typical UK farm could have more than £100,000 worth of capital tied up in wires, walls and hedges, and spend many tens of thousands more each year repairing and replacing it. The technology is not yet on the market but there is “lots of interest, both here in the UK and abroad,” says SRUC’s professor of agricultural ecology, Davy McCracken.


Satellite technology’s relevance is not limited to the field. Aquaculture needs to be a key part of the world’s future nutrition strategy, says Dr Peter Miller, senior Earth observation scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), but many countries, including the UK, have huge untapped potential. His team is involved in several projects to develop the use of tools for monitoring water quality for the finfish and bivalve shellfish aquaculture industries.

“The satellite observation monitoring tools provide information on the environmental conditions around aquaculture sites and potentially give finfish and shellfish farmers warning of the occurrence of harmful algal blooms and microbiological pollution from sewage discharges,” Miller says.

PML’s satellite ocean colour classification approach has already been deployed to provide early warnings of harmful algal blooms for the three largest salmon-farming companies in Scotland. They are now trialling satellite classifiers tailored to the aquatic eco-systems of Norway, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands, and working too with small single-farm shellfish companies in Cornwall.

As Innovate UK’s competition deadline of 24 February nears, Telford and Powell say they are excited to see what fresh concepts will emerge. “The ultimate goal is to develop new products that could revolutionise agriculture, aquaculture and the food industry,” says Powell.

These are game-changing technologies and who knows how agriculture will evolve? As farmers are increasingly freed from their fields, what next for our increasingly disconnected relationship with the land that produces our food? From field to fork via space: we are serving up a brave new world.

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