Machinery Chatter

New Eyes in the Sky

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
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A tiny Dove satellite floats over the Earth after being deployed from the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Several times this year a portal on the International Space Station will open to release a new flock of "Doves." They will float into a near-Earth orbit around 400 miles up and unfold solar panel wings. With these wings spread, the Doves will orient themselves, line up the cameras built into their bodies and start taking photos of -- among other things -- your farm fields.

Satellite imaging just got more intriguing for American farmers and ranchers.

Planet, a San Francisco-based company, builds, owns and manages the Doves, which are about 4x4x12-inches and weigh about 10 pounds each. They carry cameras that can capture images in true color or in near-infrared (NIR). Each image has a resolution of 3- to 5-meters. Planet already has 60 satellites (Doves and others) circling the Earth, and by the end of the year it plans to launch 100 more Doves. Currently, the satellites can photograph most parts of the Earth biweekly. The goal, Planet says, is to have enough satellites aloft to photograph every part of the globe every day.

Planet, which recently rebranded from it previous name Planet Labs, processes and sells images to agriculture, intelligence and military agencies. Local governments, financial and business intelligence suppliers also are customers. So are mapping companies, businesses involved in infrastructure, energy and forestry. Organizations and scientists also use Planet images to study the social impacts of physical changes on the planet.

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In the agricultural sector, customers include seed and chemical companies like Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta. Grain traders buy images so they can keep tabs on crops grown around the world. Ag retailers, farm supply companies and consulting companies also love up-to-date satellite images that provide a peek at current crop conditions.

Individual farmers currently are not marketing targets for Planet, "Our strategy and philosophy is to work with a close network of strategic partners that in turn service the grower community," said Ryan Schacht, the company's account executive for agriculture.

Those strategic partners, such as FarmLogs, use satellite images to help farmers identify trouble spots in their fields. True color images can give valuable information about water management and crop conditions. NIR images can monitor plant health and spot problem areas that invite ground-truthing.

Satellite images can be more cost effective than airplane and UAS images, said Jesse Vollmar, FarmLogs' CEO, because they already exist; you don't have to hire a pilot or fly a drone to get them. Images from orbit don't have to be stitched together and are already geo-referenced. Importantly, satellite sensing has a history; years of images already exist and can give context to the most recent images.

In the past, satellite images had a major drawback. Their creation was too infrequent. With only a few satellites taking photos, it could be weeks or months before one passed over your farm. And if the skies were cloudy that day, you likely were out of luck. Biweekly images are a vast improvement; daily images could be game changers.

With Doves, "We provide frequency and coverage that is consistent, reliable and actionable for the agricultural industry," Schacht said.

Watch for a flock of Doves near you; you might need a telescope.

Jim Patrico can be reached at jim.patrico@dtn.com

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Jim Patrico

Jim Patrico
Connect with Jim: