Space-age technology to assist farmers

The Agriculture Department and NASA have forged a partnership to use the latest Earth science and mapping technology to help farmers increase their productivity.

The USDA will use NASA's satellite monitoring, mapping and systems engineering technology to improve farmers' yields by providing detailed information about soil and crop properties and weather predictions. In turn, NASA will receive information for an initiative to study the effect of farming on the Earth.

"The idea is to bring the high-level satellite program right down to the breakfast table," said Warren Clark, an agribusiness consultant in Chicago.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe signed a memorandum of understanding last month. The agreement launched a $1 million, three-year program to assess the geographic information and remote sensing needs of the agriculture community. Through geospatial extension programs, specialists will work closely with NASA and the USDA at land grant universities to address those needs.

"The ability to look at precise areas of land on a more frequent basis is leading to a whole host of technological advances for farmers, including monitors and maps that can detect and record changes in yields, soil attributes, or crop conditions," Veneman said in a statement on the memorandum signing.

The agencies will cooperate in five areas: carbon capture and storage for carbon management; environmental models for invasive species; water cycle science for water management; weather and climate prediction; and regional, national and international atmospheric prediction for air quality management.

The agencies will also share information through databases, information systems, classes and conferences to facilitate technology development.

NASA has 18 Earth observation satellites with 80 sensors measuring geophysical parameters to understand processes such as plate tectonics and water, atmospheric, carbon and energy cycles, said Ron Birk, director of the Applications Division for the Office of Earth Science at NASA.

The two agencies have been working together for more than 30 years, using technology to study, for example, soil moisture content and crop properties. NASA's growing capabilities created this latest, more advanced partnership. In the 1970s, NASA was limited to two satellites with two sensors. Since 1999, that number has been increasing and includes information on weather, climate and natural disasters, Birk said.

"It enables us to realize our vision and mission from research and development of technology and integrate our results with decision-support tools of other agencies," Birk said.

NASA is the only organization to offer this type of research, and although commercial sources of remote sensing technology exist, they offer different capabilities, Birk said. "It's NASA's mandate to conduct research in Earth sciences, and we're unique in that way," he said. "There isn't another source."

The use of satellite technology supports the trend toward precision agriculture, improving crop management and pesticide application. Enhanced predictability means a decrease in production cost, because farmers can pinpoint where to apply pesticides, and an increase in food quality and volume, Clark said.

The challenge for the Agriculture Department will be taking three terabytes of data per day and deciding which information is relevant and how to synthesize it, Birk said.

"We're working with USDA to identify the systems that are already serving the farming community that are looking for inputs that are predictors of weather or climate," Birk said. "It's a system-oriented approach, rather than a data-oriented approach."

Allen Dedrick, an associate deputy administrator at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, recognized the data processing as the major challenge with such an endeavor. He said researchers and specialists were hard at work for a solution. "It always has to be done rapidly," he said. "The turn-around time is crucial, and that's always a challenge."

Once the data is processed, it must reach the farmers in the field. Consultants and geospatial extension specialists will likely work directly with the farmers through courses and demonstrations, Birk said. The data may also be relayed through conferences, classes, newsletters and state agriculture magazines.

Eventually, the data will be online, but that requires advanced hardware and software. "That's certainly where it's going," Birk said. "Anyone utilizing this technology probably is going to be very well equipped."

The vast amount of data has kept precision agriculture from catching on rapidly in the field. Although the theory is sound, the application is daunting, said Jim Mock, president of CropVerifeye LLC, which focuses on solutions for food traceability. "It's not a trivial matter to take all that information and make sense of it," he said. "It would seem to be a gargantuan effort."

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Boosting productivity

The Agriculture Department and NASA have partnered to share NASA's satellite monitoring and mapping technology to increase farmers' productivity. The agreement includes the following technologies:

* Monitors and maps to detect and record changes in yields, soil properties and crop conditions.

* Sensors to vary the application rate and timing for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water.

* Vehicle guidance systems to provide sensing for weed and pest populations and to detect crop properties, such as protein content, during harvest.

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