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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.
GEOSYS ups the ante
GEOSYS, which says it is the largest purchaser and processor of agricultural satellite imagery in the world, began offering services to the U.S. market through WinField in 2011. That’s when the two companies partnered to roll out new variable-rate prescription capabilities in Winfield’s R7 Tool, which are based on multiple zone performance maps derived from10 years of satellite data.
“The most efficient way to build a variable rate fertility plan is from building yield goals in each field zone, which are defined with what has happened in those zones in the past,” says Damien Lepoutre, GEOSYS president and founder. “We were able to do that based NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) data derived from more than 10 years of archived images.”
Taking on the next challenge – using satellite imagery to protect yield potential during the growing season – dramatically ups the ante because of the need for more image frequency, says Lepoutre.
“The problem in the U.S. is that it is so huge that it is impossible to go over the land mass every day capturing high-resolution satellite images,” says Lepoutre. Delivering one clear image per week requires several satellite passes each week to compensate for cloud cover, which makes images unusable. The company has successfully used that strategy for about a decade in Europe, where satellite imagery is used to drive multiple in-season variable-rate nitrogen applications in wheat.
“We are confident that we will be able to provide a clear image every week, or five per month,” he says. To accomplish that, GEOSYS is procuring imagery from four satellite providers offering imagery at resolutions ranging from 5 to 30 meters. That’s up from two providers in 2013, when GEOSYS delivered a minimum of three clear images, and as many as a dozen, from April through August for every field across the Corn Belt.
“Five clear images a month is enough to be considered a crop scouting tool and a part of your decision-making process,” Lepoutre says. “That means any time a WinField agronomist goes to a customer’s field, he has the latest image and knows what to look for.”
In addition to the weekly high-resolution satellite image, GEOSYS is acquiring daily imagery at a 250-meter resolution. When used in conjunction with a 14-year database of similar images, agronomists will have a quick progress report of every field in their service area. “You can benchmark whether a field is behaving correctly every day or so, then you use the weekly 5- to 30-meter satellite image to analyze what is happening,” he says.
In 2014, GEOSYS satellite imagery will be available only through WinField affiliates. “It is critical that the grower gets the value from the image, which WinField has the skills to provide,” says Lepoutre. “Just having a nice image is not worth a high price unless you can have a positive affect the bottom line.”
WinField’s suggested retail price for full-service in-season crop imagery services, which includes agronomy support, field scouting to ground truth imagery and variable rate application maps, is $7/acre. For information, visit winfield.com.