AgriTech Seeds Start to Grow in Cornwall

On Monday I attended the Jump Start AgriTech event hosted by the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications at the Tremough Innovation Centre on the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus near Falmouth in Cornwall. As the name suggests the one day event covered innovations in AgriTech with a particular focus on what is, or could be, happening in the South West.

The day began with a series of short presentations and Paul Harris, Rothamsted Research, was up first on their Open Access Farm Platform. North Wyke Farm in Devon has been equipped with a variety of sensors and instruments to understand the effects of different farming practices. Of particular interest to me was their analysis of run-off, weather monitoring and soil moisture every 15 minutes; this is a great resource for satellite product validation.

I was up next talking about Earth Observation (EO) Satellite Data for AgriTech. Having seen people overpromise and oversell EO data too many times, I began with getting people to think about what they were trying to achieve, before looking at the technology. The circle of starting questions, on the right, is how I begin with potential clients. If satellite EO is the right technology from these answers, then you can start considering the combinations of both optical/microwave data and free-to-access and commercial data. I went on to show the different types of satellite imagery and what the difference in spatial resolution looks like within an agriculture setting.

I was followed by Vladimir Stolikovic, Satellite Applications Catapult, who focused on the Internet of Things and how it’s important to have sensor network data collected and communicated, with satellite broadband being used in conjunction with mobile phones and WiFi coverage.

Our last talk was by Dr Karen Anderson, University of Exeter, who looked at how drones can capture more than imagery. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘structure from motion photogrammetry’ technique which allows heights to be determined from multiple images; such that for a much lower cost, you can create something similar to what is acquired from a Lidar or laser scanning instrument. Also, by focusing on extracting height, data can be collected in conditions where there’s variable amounts of light, such as under clouds, and it doesn’t requirement high accuracy radiometric calibration.

After coffee, case studies were presented on farming applications:

  • VirtualVet – Collecting data on animal health and drug use digitally, via mobile apps, so paper records don’t become out of data and data can be collated to gain greater insights.
  • Steve Chapman, SC Nutrition Ltd, talked about improving milk production by making sure dried food is optimally prepared – large pieces of dried sweetcorn are digested less well, and a lower nutritional value is extracted from them.
  • The delightfully named, Farm Crap App from FoAM Kernow, aims to encourage farmers to spread manure rather than use artificial fertilizer. Farmers tended to go for the latter as it is easier to calculate the effects, and so having advice, regulations and the important calculations in a phone app, rather than in paper tables, should help them use manure.
  • Caterina Santachiara, ABACO, describing their siti4FARMER solution which is a cloud-computing based platform that includes data which scales from the field to farm and large land areas, with individual customisation so that users can easily see what they need to know.
  • Finally, Glyn Jones from AVANTI, talked about how farmers can stay connected to the internet, and tech support, while out in their fields. This sounds straightforward, but none of the current technologies work well enough – mainly due to the fact that fields aren’t flat! So a new technological area of investigation is ‘white space’ – these are frequencies allocated to broadcasting services, but left unused in particular geographical locations as buffers. The availability varies from location to location, but it is available to lower-powered devices.

After lunch, there were some presentations on Agritech funding opportunities from Innovate UK, AgriTech Cornwall and the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications. The day concluded with a facilitated session where small groups explored a variety of different ideas in more detail.

It was a really good day, and shows that there is real potential for AgriTech to grow in the South West.

Locusts & Monkeys

Soil moisture data from the SMOS satellite and the MODIS instrument acquired between July and October 2016 were used by isardSAT and CIRAD to create this map showing areas with favourable locust swarming conditions (in red) during the November 2016 outbreak. Data courtesy of ESA. Copyright : CIRAD, SMELLS consortium.

Spatial resolution is a key characteristic in remote sensing, as we’ve previously discussed. Often the view is that you need an object to be significantly larger than the resolution to be able to see it on an image. However, this is not always the case as often satellites can identify indicators of objects that are much smaller.

We’ve previously written about satellites identifying phytoplankton in algal blooms, and recently two interesting reports have described how satellites are being used to determine the presence of locusts and monkeys!

Locusts

Desert locusts are a type of grasshopper, and whilst individually they are harmless as a swarm they can cause huge damage to populations in their paths. Between 2003 and 2005 a swarm in West Africa affected eight million people, with reported losses of 100% for cereals, 90% for legumes and 85% for pasture.

Swarms occur when certain conditions are present; namely a drought, followed by rain and vegetation growth. ESA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have being working together to determine if data from the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite can be used to forecast these conditions. SMOS carries a Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS) instrument – a 2D interferometric L-band radiometer with 69 antenna receivers distributed on a Y-shaped deployable antenna array. It observes the ‘brightness temperature’ of the Earth, which indicates the radiation emitted from planet’s surface. It has a temporal resolution of three days and a spatial resolution of around 50 km.

By combining the SMOS soil moisture observations with data from NASA’s MODIS instrument, the team were able to downscale SMOS to 1km spatial resolution and then use this data to create maps. This approach then predicted favourable locust swarming conditions approximately 70 days ahead of the November 2016 outbreak in Mauritania, giving the potential for an early warning system.

This is interesting for us as we’re currently using soil moisture data in a project to provide an early warning system for droughts and floods.

Monkeys

Earlier this month the paper, ‘Connecting Earth Observation to High-Throughput Biodiversity Data’, was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. It describes the work of scientists from the Universities of Leicester and East Anglia who have used satellite data to help identify monkey populations that have declined through hunting.

The team have used a variety of technologies and techniques to pull together indicators of monkey distribution, including:

  • Earth observation data to map roads and human settlements.
  • Automated recordings of animal sounds to determine what species are in the area.
  • Mosquitos have been caught and analysed to determine what they have been feeding on.

Combining these various datasets provides a huge amount of information, and can be used to identify areas where monkey populations are vulnerable.

These projects demonstrate an interesting capability of satellites, which is not always recognised and understood. By using satellites to monitor certain aspects of the planet, the data can be used to infer things happening on a much smaller scale than individual pixels.