The year was 1858 when French balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, famously known and remembered as Nadar, captured the first aerial photograph of the Earth from a balloon tethered over the Bievre Valley. In the decades that followed, mankind made many successful (and unsuccessful) attempts at aerial photography using carriers as novel as pigeons with devices taped to their bodies. It took till the latter half of the 20th century for artificial satellites to be introduced as a means of capturing data about the earth from a distance. Since then, the data collected using sensors and satellites has proved beneficial to many sectors right from military intelligence to geology and agriculture.
Remote sensing, the ability to obtain information about an area or object without direct physical contact, has evolved significantly since those early aerial adventures. Today, it acts as one of the biggest inputs for data-driven smart agriculture. Digital agriculture — the use of new and advanced technology to enable smarter and more sustainable food production — depends largely on the availability of reliable external data that can translate to better decision-making throughout different stages of cultivation. With a growing population and dwindling cultivable land resources as the two main challenges facing food production in the future, it is the intelligence derived from these sources that will guide cultivation and harvesting decisions by providing cultivators with the right information at the right time.
Why Remote Sensing is Priceless to Agribusinesses?
Practicing sustainable agricultural practices is all about knowing what to do and when. It is imperative that we no longer view agriculture as an unorganized sector, heavily dependent on the vagaries of nature.
Remote sensing devices monitor the field over a period of time and take various measurements that act as inputs for decisions to be made during the cultivation process. While in the initial stages this could translate to identifying the right weather conditions conducive for planting a particular crop, during the cultivation phase it could give the grower the ability to intervene and take action against pests or diseases before they spread to other areas and destroy the entire crop.
The information presented to stakeholders in different parts of the agricultural value chain comes primarily from three external data sources: weather information, earth observation, and field information collected using ground, aerial, and satellite sensors.
While ground sensors are typically handheld or mounted on tractors and combine harvesters, aerial sensors involve the use of drones that are capable of capturing data about the field within a limited radius. Satellite sensors provide the most extensive and detailed coverage of large masses of land without any limitation in terms of size or historical depth of information. The combined insights gathered from all these sources help the stakeholders in the agri-ecosystem take more informed and well-timed decisions regarding their crops.
How does remote sensing impact different aspects of cultivation and enable smarter farming decisions?
Knowing what to plant and determining the right time to harvest
With remote sensing, farmers have access to complete information about ideal environmental and weather conditions well into the future, helping them to plan their cultivation cycle better. The predictive nature of the technology helps in zeroing in on the perfect time to plant the crop under the given conditions and also provides valuable information right from sowing to harvest.
Soil mapping and forecasting irrigation needs
Soil mapping is also an important factor in estimating the soil health and moisture data in a given plot of land. It can help identify the ideal crop and its variety to cultivate in the region, and the level of moisture it would require throughout different stages of growth. As a result of this, it also helps in planning the irrigation needs well in advance based on the weather forecast.
Assessing crop health across stages and accurate yield prediction
Remote sensing helps in closely monitoring the crop health of a given field on a continuous basis so as to identify any potential threats and take corrective action before they cause any damage. It also serves as a reliable method of estimating the yield output for the cultivation cycle and identifying the right time to harvest based on the weather conditions. Products like Cropin’s SmartRisk utilize satellite-based remote sensing technology coupled with high processing capabilities to provide actionable predictive insights about the entire area under cultivation with a high level of accuracy.
Keeping a virtual eye on the farm
A significant advantage of remote sensing is that it allows growers to keep a constant vigil on their farms no matter where they are located. This makes sense for big agribusinesses that have farms located in different parts of the country and require the produce from all farms to be of a certain quality. With the help of remote sensing, all stakeholders can keep a check on the crop as it moves from one stage to another to ensure a standard and consistent quality as needed by the business. Farm management software like CropIn’s SmartFarm relies on remote sensing technology to offer complete visibility into the growth and performance of the crop throughout the season.
Monitoring drought and weather-related dependencies
The weather patterns of a given area can be constantly monitored using satellite data. This is especially beneficial in areas often affected by extreme weather events, like floods, drought, heatwaves, or hurricanes, where timely information allows growers to prepare for the event and curb crop losses.
Evaluating historical land quality and degradation mapping
Satellite imagery helps in assessing land use/land cover (LULC) patterns over a given period of time to determine any recent changes in Earth’s land cover. Knowing the historical performance of land has many uses, not just for farmers but also for determining crop insurance coverage or loan disbursement by banks and other credit providers.
Protecting crops against pests and diseases
Since remote sensing ensures that the crop is constantly monitored over the span of its cultivation, it helps protect the crop against a full-blown onslaught of any pest or disease. Any detected pest or hazardous element sparks an alert that gets sent out immediately. These real-time alerts ensure that all possible threats are quickly identified and handled before they impact the entire farm.