How emerging space technologies are transforming agriculture on Earth
By Diego Durantini, Interdisciplinary Manager at Agri-TechE (full bio below)
Space is unique as it offers conditions that are hardly replicable on Earth. Near-vacuum, microgravity, and high-radiations create rich research and manufacturing environments that can only be achieved in space. And with uniqueness comes value: space-tech has the incredible potential to enable, scale and shape the technologies of tomorrow.
Nevertheless, technology is already in space: since the late 1950s, when Sputnik I was launched, humankind has taken advantage of space to better lives on Earth. And if Sputnik could be considered the grandparent of satellite technology, more than 8000 of its grandchildren are orbiting our planet as you are reading.
The results of decades of space-tech development have brought us technologies that, by now, are largely taken for granted. Think about GPS, powered by Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, or even telecommunication as radio signals that power satellite television, telephone, radio and internet.
While navigation and communication, along with defence, have constituted the first extensive uses of technology in space, Earth Observation (EO), satellite internet services and remote sensing are gaining prominence as applications for space-tech.
" In 2008, there were approximately 150 satellites with the purpose of conducting EO and remote sensing. Fast forward to 2023 and the total now stands at over 1000, with plenty more scheduled to join them. "
This surge of hardware in space is matched by a surge of applications on Earth: a phenomenon which promises to enhance a diverse array of industries. From monitoring offshore wind farms to tracking plant health on farms, satellite technologies are gaining prominence as an effective tool to confer a competitive advantage. And entrepreneurs are noticing.
While satellites have facilitated this explosion in interest surrounding EO and connectivity applications, the real enabler is the improvement in technology miniaturization and sensitivity, which has opened up new potential industries to satellite applications. In the last few years, a wide range of cutting-edge technologies have been deployed in space. Cameras, radar, LiDAR, and photometers provide us with high-resolution images that can tell us anything from plant health to net biodiversity gains, from soil water status to crop growth.
Together with the improvement in machine learning and AI, these technologies are spawning a flurry of applications that are poised to take several industries by storm from insurance, energy, and finance, to agri-tech and environmental monitoring. Remote sensing and EO deployment bring exponentially more value when the areas to monitor are vast and hard to access, as is the case with agricultural lands and forests. Hence, it is no surprise that the most innovative uses of space-tech are finding fertile ground in agriculture and environmental monitoring.
At Agri-TechE we are seeing an increase in our technology members using space-tech in their solutions, as well as our farmers and agronomists making use of the insights they provide. Whilst space-enabled technologies are no stranger to agriculture – GPS-guided auto-steer systems have been used for well over a decade – the lower cost of satellite tech, combined with faster and more accurate data processing, is making the industry take notice of the potential of space-tech.
One of the most comprehensive uses of satellite imaging is showcased by Agtelligence, an Agri-TechE member. This start-up combines LiDAR (a remote sensing technology that uses laser light) with hyperspectral data from a wide range of wavelengths to accurately measure the distance to objects on the ground and ultimately create detailed images of Earth's surface. This imagery enables Agtelligence to monitor and measure environmental metrics that capture soil health and biodiversity, as well as the anthropomorphic impact on land.
If it is true that businesses and organisations cannot manage what they cannot measure, Agtelligence is providing a tool to meet that need. As current industry trends point to farmers and downstream players in the agrifood supply chain needing to evidence their impact on the environment, the clever combination of technology in space and ingenuity on Earth will support them in the transition to a more sustainable food production. Agtelligence helps to manage the impact of agronomic and environmental actions and practices by giving confidence in the measurement of their outcomes over time.
Agtelligence’s ability to provide insight across the agrifood value chain would not be possible without the recent development in space technologies. This is also true for other agri-tech applications. Cameras can now identify crop stress early to prevent the impact on yields, measure and monitor grassland to optimise grazing and soil carbon storage, or peer through cloud coverage to remove the weather variable from the observation equation.
Farm connectivity, especially with the large amount of data produced by machinery, sensors, and IoT devices, is becoming crucial to extract real-time insights and increase automation on-farm. Satellite-driven connectivity is paramount to make these innovations mainstream.
Another company at the forefront of the space and agri-tech industries is OneWeb, a techUK member organisation. By providing reliable, low latency connectivity, OneWeb’s LEO satellites can facilitate the deployment of new digital technologies to even the most remote areas. These include AI, big data, IoT sensors and computer vision, all contributing to enhanced farming efficiencies through a wide range of new transformative applications – including, drone-based monitoring of agricultural sites to data analytics for crop yield optimisation and the increased automation of operations.
OneWeb states that:
“ by the end of the decade, enhanced connectivity in agriculture could potentially add more than $500 billion to global GDP, a critical productivity improvement of as much as 9% for the industry. ”
There is no doubt that space technologies are increasingly showing their revolutionising potential in agri-tech and climate-tech.
With the UK poised to play a foundational role in the advent of a space industrial revolution, as explored in techUK’s upcoming Industries of the Future: Space webinar on 20 September, our leadership in agricultural systems and technologies has never been more crucial. It is clear that the sector is quickly becoming the ideal entrepreneurial laboratory in which to combine emerging space technologies and a pioneering spirit.
The question is: are there limits to what we can achieve as a result?
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