The inception of space science and technology has brought a revolution to different industrial sectors around the world. Satellite communications, Earth observation and satellite navigation are some of the applications of space technology.
As an enabler of the protection, security and sustainability of our planet, Earth observation (EO) is one of the important applications of space technology. It is a method to monitor, observe and measure biological, chemical and physical parameters on a global scale by using data collected by satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). This remotely sensed data produced by EO satellites is relevant to climate change, agriculture, disaster management, weather forecasting and so on. Given the role of agriculture in the global economy and our welfare, EO’s importance cannot be understated.
In layman’s terms, smart farming is the ability to anticipate, analyse and react to natural and man-made threats through the use of highly advanced EO payloads embedded into drones, high-altitude platforms and small satellites. The spectral bands used by EO satellites benefit smart farming directly or indirectly, as a technique to help farmers record land productivity and improve their decision-making power for cultivation and product marketing.
By using different types of spectral images, farmers can change techniques by knowing the crop pattern and fertility of the soil. Weather forecasting data from EO satellites is also helpful to find out the time and period of harvesting. This is useful in regions where the weather changes drastically and causes a large amount of damage to fields.
Current developments in smart farming
Several private endeavours are underway to cultivate an eco-system for the global EO markets by developing constellations across the spectrum of satellite operators and data analytics platforms as service providers. Concurrently, civil government agencies are rolling up their sleeves to support this newfound momentum in terms of both policy and finance, and in both the developed and developing world.
The European Commission’s Copernicus Programme is the world’s largest EO programme, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), EU agencies, Mercator Ocean and the European member states, and highlights the role of government agencies within the EO landscape. ESA and EUMETSAT are responsible for developing and managing space solutions for the Copernicus Programme.
The information provided by this programme is available for free, giving IT communities wider scope for big data management in EO, allowing the downstream market to expand.
Private companies like Planet and Satellogic are developing smart farming solutions by launching small and nano satellites, while companies like Orbital Insight and SatSure are building foundations in machine learning and big data analytics.
In recent years, some space technology start-ups have been looking to use and manage EO data. Therefore, there are a lot of opportunities for storing, managing, analysing and providing services through EO data for smart farming. Moreover, ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office has created Business Incubation Centres (BIC) in different parts of Europe to encourage entrepreneurs to develop business ideas based on space science and technology.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
With the rise in global population every year, there is an increase in demand for agricultural products. According to the FAO, the global population is expected to reach 9.6bn by 2025. This poses the challenge of feeding billions of people in the near future. With a rapid increase in population and no corresponding increase in productivity or GDP, there is cause for concern. In the most serious cases, population explosion, combined with factors such as desertification brought on by global warming, leads to increasingly precarious food security situations, particularly relevant in parts of North and West Africa. EO data and subsequent smart farming insights can alleviate these pressures by improving crop yields, providing better predictive analytics for drought risk and generally helping information become more readily available.
For example, India is second most populous country in the world but the seventh largest in terms of agricultural output. There are several unanswered questions here. Is India using smart techniques in farming? Do Indian farmers get their deserved share of the gains from their work? Will India be able to feed billions of mouths without increasing farming efficiency?
To overcome these problems and put an end to poverty and hunger, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has initiated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many of these goals are connected to farming.
Smart farming is a promising way to increase efficiency in agriculture and will play a crucial role in protecting and creating sustainable solutions to transform the global agricultural system. As agriculture is by far the most important part of the global demand and supply chain, it is necessary to boost research and development activities to innovate new technologies.
The development of space technology for agriculture requires greater support from investors and entrepreneurs. The benefits leveraged by smart farming will be fruitful only if there is continued government support in terms of policy and finance. Although the idea behind the UNDP Sustainable Development Goals is impressive, it will take strong cooperation between government and private institutions to build a sustainable future.
Omkar Nikam is a Market Analyst with Orbital Gateway Consulting (OGC). He has a master’s degree in Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. At OGC, he works on Satellite Communication and New Space research.