How Remote Sensing Helps us Grow our Food Better
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 and 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 into better decision making throughout different stages of cultivation.
With growing population and dwindling cultivable land resources as the two main challenges facing food production in the future, it is 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 the Agri-Businesses?
Practising sustainable agricultural practices is all about knowing what to do when. It is imperative that we no longer view agriculture as an unorganised 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 into identifying the right weather conditions conducive for planting a particular crop, during the cultivation phase it could give a 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, satellite information, and field information, collected using ground, aerial, and satellite sensors. While ground sensors are typically handheld or mounted on tractors and combines, 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 detailed and vast 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 farmers take more informed and well-timed decisions regarding their crop.
But, how does remote sensing impact different aspects of cultivation and enable smarter farming decisions?
1. Knowing what to Plant when and Determining the Right Time to Harvest: With remote sensing, farmers have access to complete information about ideal soil 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 a particular crop under the given weather conditions and also provides valuable information right from sowing till harvesting.
2. Soil Mapping and Forecasting Irrigation Needs: It is also an important factor in estimating the soil moisture data in a given plot of land, which can help identify the ideal crop to cultivate and the level of moisture it would require throughout different stages of growth. As a result, it also helps in adequately planning the irrigation needs well in advance.
3. Assessing Crop Health across Stages and Making Accurate Yield Prediction: Remote sensing helps in closely monitoring 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 predicting the yield over a given cultivation cycle and in identifying the right time to harvest, based on the climatic conditions.
4. Evaluating Historical Land Quality and Degradation Mapping: Satellite imagery helps in assessing the quality of a particular piece of land over a given period of time, in order to calculate the extent of land degradation with cultivation. Knowing the historical performance of land has many uses, not just to farmers but also for determining crop insurance coverage or loan disbursement by banks and other credit providers.
5. Monitoring Drought and other Weather-related Dependencies: The weather patterns of a given area can constantly be monitored with the help of remote sensing technology. This is especially beneficial in drought or flood-affected areas where the information helps in identifying the time between one rainfall to the next and prepare for any eventuality, if it were to occur.
6. Keeping a Virtual Eye on the Farm: One of the biggest advantages of remote sensing is that it allows food growers to keep a constant vigil on their farms, no matter where they are located. This makes sense for big agri-businesses that have farms located in different parts of the country and require the produce from all farms to be of a certain quality and quantity. With the help of remote sensing, all stakeholders can keep a check on the crop as it moves from one stage to another ensure that all the produce is of the same quality standard as needed by the business.
7. Protecting Crops against Pests and Diseases: Since remote sensing ensure 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.
Agriculture is one of the sectors that stands to benefit the most from remote sensing technology. In addition to smarter decision making regarding every aspect of cultivation, it also allows agri-businesses to control, monitor and accurately predict the outcome of each and every crop that is cultivated. The applications of this prescriptive and predictive intelligence are numerous and touch various stakeholders throughout the agricultural value chain.
The pertinent question for agri-businesses and stakeholders isn’t about deciding whether or not to engage in smart data-driven agricultural practices; it lies in identifying the right solution that combines technology and agricultural know-how in a manner that makes the most sense for them, given their current challenges and finding smarter ways of overcoming them.