A Snapshot of Imagery in Agriculture

Aerial imagery has developed over time into layers of data for in-season management insights.

Waves of imagery technology have flooded the agriculture industry for years but have struggled to prove useful in the broad suite of tools for farm management. Receiving pictures without actionable insights too late to make a difference has been one of the major obstacles to adoption.

In the last six years, Zack Smith, farmer and Pioneer sales agent, has witnessed the technology change. “When I first started, we had to fly a plane, download and stitch data, and wait for a day or two for everything to process before we could have an image to look at.”

With advancements in satellite imagery, the ability to have multiple images per week delivered seamlessly to a phone allows for directed scouting and ground truthing, which is where the real value lies.

Satellite Imagery

Satellogic, an Argentine company, is innovating in the satellite technology space with a goal of taking a 1-meter resolution image of the planet every week. This allows industries like agriculture to gather updated information at any scale – from individual fields to entire farm operations and beyond.

Satellite images can provide precise measurements, particularly in water usage. 

Marco Bressan, chief data scientist at Satellogic, says, “If we can tell you what’s going on in real time, how things are evolving, and what the effects are, we can help you make a better decision to increase productivity and make efficient use of inputs.”

In addition, Bressan says, layering historical data from static images of the past 15 to 20 years means we can analyze changes in the planet’s dynamics to help predict the future.

How it Works

According to Bressan, “Specialty satellites that capture very high-resolution data, traditionally, are extremely expensive. Probably one of the main reasons for that is because the industry has evolved a lot of fail-safes. If my satellite fails, I can’t just send an engineer up in space to fix it.”

High-quality materials and complex test facilities for simulations drive up the cost of harnessing satellites. 

That is where Satellogic has taken an alternative approach. 

The company is inputting software wherever it can and using off-the-shelf components to make satellites cheaper.

Then, it sends up a constellation of around 90 satellites to capture images of the planet in real time.

A Dynamic View of the Farm

The value of interacting with satellite imagery comes in through the availability of layered data. You can receive and interpret information on plant stress and irrigation needs to inform decision-making and timing of harvest.

That captured data can influence the management decisions of a single field or a number of fields of a particular crop, touching the entire food supply chain.

“This is done without demanding additional efforts from farmers. Also, compared with sensors, as you start to increase the surface area or even drone imagery, they don’t scale adequately,” Bressan says.

Spectral Imagery

Ceres Imaging captures layers of data, as well, but does so via manned airplanes and mobile apps.

Ash Madgavkar, chief executive officer, says, “We don’t believe in dumping the data on farmers – like data for data’s sake. Farmers have a lot of priorities, and our goal is to be as efficient as possible while empowering them to make effective decisions for their farm.”

Ceres’ spectral imagery process captures specific types of data tailored to farmers’ goals. That data is collected and sent for processing in the cloud via Ceres’ proprietary platform.

There is no hardware to buy, so the operation cost is low. The web and mobile app have different data layers, and the data insights are communicated back to farmers.

However, similar to satellite imagery, heavy clouds or extreme weather delays could impact imagery delivery.

“We can provide a level of service to give farmers the ability to understand what the data means – what it does, what it doesn’t do, how other farmers typically use it – and give them the training and support that is necessary to make it actionable in their fields,” Madgavkar says. “We want to communicate to farmers the context and information so they can be actionable with the data we provide.”

Bridging the Gap

A picture may be worth a thousand words,  but Smith says, “The key is to put time into interpreting images or to work with someone who is helping you evaluate your imagery. The utility of imagery presents itself when it helps find agronomic issues that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and it allows you the opportunity to take action.”

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