NASA applying space technology to help farmers diagnose fields
Space Science News home
to help farmers diagnose fields
These and dozens of other questions nibble at farmers as they go about the business of raising crops. What could be a simple decision for a single plant cannot be done thousands or hundreds of thousands of times to meet the needs of each plant on the farm.
Right: Click to see a 500 KB QuickTime movie that illustrates the remote sensing process. Figure credit: NASA/Marshall, GHCC; Animation credit: Digital Radiance
Of necessity, farmers often wind up with "one size fits all" solutions: an entire field gets the same treatment.
Yet nature is viciously random. What we see on a map or from afar as a homogenous field actually has a complex anatomy.
"That's the way the real world is put together," said Dr. Doug Rickman, a NASA remote sensing scientist at the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
December 3: Mars Polar Lander nears touchdown
December 2: What next, Leonids?
November 30: Polar Lander Mission Overview
November 30: Learning how to make a clean sweep in space
"This exciting project brings together NASA scientists and farmers," said Dr. J.M. Wersinger of Auburn University, "soil and plant researchers and Extension specialists - who make sure the technology gets to other farmers so they can use it."
Wersinger is a NASA Space Grant Fellow who is administering and coordinating the program that is funded by the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the Georgia Space Grant Consortium, Auburn University and the University of Georgia. The current effort grew out of a desire at NASA Headquarters to put remote sensing technology to work helping farmers and others in partnership with Extension people.
Wersinger arranged for Dr. Paul Mask, an Extension specialist and agronomist at Auburn University, and Dr. David Kissel a soil scientist at the University of Georgia to line up farmers who had the right instruments on their harvesting combines, and asked Rickman to develop the remote-sensing end of the project.
"It's higher than almost anything else I've ever seen in land-based remote sensing," he continued. "There's some interesting physics going on that no one was aware of." Nor does anyone fully understand it yet, but that might not be necessary as far as farmers are concerned. What matters is if it works.
Left: False-color imagery taken by the ATLAS instrument aboard the NASA LearJet 23. Credit: NASA/Marshall, GHCC.
"I don't think we'll understand all of the physics involved in this any time soon," Rickman explained. But in this case, "understanding the science is tertiary. Our end objective is to make an economic difference to the individual farmer."
The individual farmer is starting to benefit from what Rickman calls a "confluence of multiple technologies that are wildly dissimilar in their origins."
Remote sensing is the field of taking images from a distance and making detailed interpretations about what is there. Weather satellites and space probe images of planets are examples of remote sensing. Since the 1970s, though, the term has generally been applied to satellites looking back at Earth and observing the environment.
It's based in the fact that light does more than paint stunning pictures of the world. It also carries information about the object that reflected or emitted the light. The trick is in understanding how to manipulate the light to extract the right messages.
The GHCC's application of thermal remote sensing to precision farming has its foundation in ecological thermodynamics which states that ecosystems develop to maximize energy throughput and maintain the lowest possible surface temperature. In agriculture systems this translates to greater leaf area and greater rates of water evaporating from leaves, which is directly correlated to yield.Precision Agriculture Conference Planned
Want to become an expert in precision agriculture? Check out the National Remote Sensing Applications Conference and Workshop to be held Nov. 15-17, Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center in Auburn, Ala.
"This brings together universities, NASA, and commercial companies, as well as Extension services, our link to the people," Wersinger said.
Among the presentations will be an invited talk by Rickman who will describe his project in detail.
Conference sponsors include the NASA Earth Science Applications Office and the NASA Space Grant Program; the Space Grant Consortia of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico,
South Carolina, and Tennessee; and others.
Sign up for our EXPRESS SCIENCE NEWS delivery
Satellite navigation expands the potential value of high-altitude imagery.
"I could do that as early as the '70s," Rickman said of the image that predicted crop yield. "But it wouldn't mean anything because you couldn't match it against ground data."
"Basically you couldn't do anything on a subfield basis," Rickman said.
Left: A black enclosure houses sophisticated optics and sensors that make up the ATLAS instrument. Credit: GHCC.
At the same time that satellite navigation became available to the consumer, advanced, low-cost electronics made it possible to add sensors that would sample field conditions as farm combines moved through the field. Coupling the sensors with GPS, farmers now could take dozens or hundreds of soil measurements while planting, fertilizing, and harvesting, and then return days and weeks later to repeat the measurement in the same location.
Still, measuring an entire field is a daunting task, so Rickman, Luvall, and others are testing imagery taken from aboard NASA's Lear 23 jet equipped with the Advanced Thermal and Land Applications Sensor (ATLAS). This is the same system used in the highly successful Urban Heat Island experiments.
|Precision agriculture pages at the GHCC provide more details, plus links to other sources on the subject.
Urban Heat Island Project at the GHCC.
Precision Agriculture studies by the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory at the University of Georgia
Ecological thermodynamics, the basis for the GHCC's work in precision agriculture, is described in detail at the University of Waterloo in California.
A crucial element in ATLAS is the ability to recalibrate itself to ensure that the readings are always accurate and don't drift with time.
Calibration is a key requirement for successful remote sensing. Another is geometric correction so the data taken by the sensor match correctly with elements on the ground. It makes no sense to predict a good harvest from a rock outcrop.
Rickman said that ATLAS meets these and other needs, making it an outstanding selection to meet the requirements for helping precision agriculture.
Working with Auburn University and the
Left: Flight lines flown during the 1998 campaign. Credit: NASA/Marshall and GHCC.
The geographic variety was needed because, "Just as an individual field varies, you also get significant variations from region to region and area to area," Rickman added.
One of the discoveries from overflights in 1998 and 1999 was that the image, taken two months before harvest, had an 87 percent correlation with the actual harvest yield. Normally in the science community a new correlation is studied in detail until it is fully understood before a paper is written explaining it from start to finish. But the vagaries of climate and farming -- witness this year's drought and its impact on families and the economy -- give Rickman and his colleagues a different perspective.
"We have observed a correlation of a single band of data with a yield that is very high," he said. "We don't understand why it happens, but it happens, and that is enough for us to go forward and tell people that it exists." Especially since it happened more than once.
Wersinger is reluctant to speculate on what it might eventually mean in improved agricultural economics.
"We are in a phase where we are just trying to find out what it can do for people," he explained. "Precision agriculture means different things because fields vary from region to region. The economics are going to depend on the area, on the type of farm, and on what they mean by precision agriculture. However, tailoring the application of chemicals to real needs in the field will certainly benefit the environment, reducing water pollution."
Left: Yield (left) compared to remote sensing image two months earlier (right). Red corresponds to higher yields, blues and greens to lower yields. Links to. Credit: NASA/Marshall and GHCC.
"If you didn't match the markers from one image to another," Rickman said, pointing at roads and other fixed elements, "you'd swear that you were looking at different fields." But the images are all the same field, and each has radical differences in thermal and near-infrared reflections.
"I'm quite confident that it has to be a wind-related phenomenon," Rickman explained. Indeed, an airport just 16 km (10 mi) away recorded winds shifting from dead calm to 9 km/h and then 18 km/h (5, 10 knots).
Above: Thermal infrared images of a field show streaking patterns that change in a few minutes. Credit: NASA/Marshall and GHCC.
The details of why the image changed so radically still have to be worked out, but could lie in the elasticity of the plant stalks, interactions between the plant and cooler air, or just the change in the angle between plant and sunlight.
Whatever the cause, "it puts an upper boundary on what you can say about remote sensing images," Rickman said, because winds are unpredictable.
Wersinger agreed that the results are puzzling and said he and students at Auburn are working on a computer model that will try to simulate the crops and try to reproduce the effect.
In addition to measuring crops, remote sensing and precision agriculture can measure the content of organic carbon, minerals, moisture, and other factors in the surface of the soil.
"You can fly over an area and tell a lot about things that are extremely important to the farmer," Rickman said. "You're talking about the field of an individual farmer, and not some nebulous concept of helping farming in general. It makes a difference. It makes it real."
More Space Science Headlines - NASA research on the web
NASA's Earth Science Enterprise Information on Earth Science missions, etc.
|For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
|Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: M. Frank Rose