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High-flying satellites - not UAVs - may be first to offer actionable in-season crop imagery beginning this year.
Two tiny Planet Labs satellites float above an International Space Station solar panel after being launched in January. The satellites are part of a planned 100-plus satellite constellation that will be able capture daily images of the entire earth.
The one-week difference
Until this year, the two satellite imagery companies – which procure images captured by a range of government and commercial satellites – promised to deliver useable crop images every three or four weeks. If image-shooting conditions were good, images might arrive every couple of weeks.
Even in a best-case scenario, images weren’t frequent enough to build an in-season scouting and crop management program around them, says Kevin Price, who recently retired from Kansas State University (KSU) after a 30-plus year career studying remote imaging.
“The problem with satellite imagery until now is we have only been able to get four images in a year,” says Price, who joined RoboFlight Systems, a geo-referenced aerial data analysis company, after leaving KSU. “You just haven’t had enough temporal resolution, or frequency.”
Weekly image frequency will be a game-changer. “Getting images once a week should be plenty often enough for use as in-season decision aid,” says Price. Ultimately, he expects imagery from satellites and UAVs to “work hand in hand” to provide raw data that will help farmers “react to crop stress in a timely manner to protect yield or reduce inputs.”
Assuming satellite providers can deliver images every week during the growing season, some of the top uses might include early monitoring of crop stands, weed pressure and nitrogen losses, says Bob Gunzenhauser, technical applications manager for DuPont Pioneer’s Next Generation Services Group.
Even with more potential uses of images with increased frequency, proof that in-season crop imagery will pay for itself will be critical to its success, he says. “One of the problems [to date] is that there hasn’t been a way to take imagery and make solid use of it,” adds Gunzenhauser, who was involved in a pilot satellite imagery program offered to growers in 2013. “The black box on turning this into value hasn’t been invented yet.”
Given the fast-changing imagery world, Pioneer hasn’t decided what imagery resources it will offer customers of its new Encirca Services platform in 2014. “We are still assessing various technologies, including satellite, aerial and UAV systems,” says Gunzenhauser. “We don’t want to just provide a pretty picture. We want to provide guidance based on local knowledge to help solve challenges.”