The demand for overhead imagery continues to gain acceptance. The volume of data gathered is increasing, and the time and learning curves required for analysis by growers and advisers are rising.
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At the same time, accessibility in nanosatellite technology and higher-resolution imagery has not led to sweeping adoption of detailed information.
Has satellite imagery’s march to the mainstream stalled?
According to those in the know, it’s too early to say.
Where there has been significant growth — and greater opportunity — is in the launch of “resellers”: services that gather data on behalf of customers interested in obtaining imagery from an increasing number of satellites in orbit.
Why it matters: Resellers offer satellite imagery information that’s easier for end-users and can be more cost-effective.
Ben Kovacs is a senior earth observation consultant with SkyWatch Space Applications. The Kitchener-Waterloo-based company is one of dozens, if not hundreds of service providers creating background infrastructure for companies, accessing data for testing, prototyping and generating solutions for particular markets.
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It’s an intermediate stage in precision ag/imagery, providing information and detail that’s friendlier for end-users.
“We’re focusing on making earth observation technology easier and more accessible — and also more affordable,” says Kovacs, who’s based in Vancouver. “In agriculture, we’re starting to see a lot of applications in South America, Asia and Africa.”
Observation technology has seen enormous acquisitions by companies and considerable resources flooding the marketplace. New assets are arriving in space, the availability of higher-resolution images is growing and creating new layers of data.
As access to hyperspectral technology increases, so will options for growers and advisers. And there’s thermal radar combined with hyperspectral imagery for crop-penetrating and ground-penetrating systems.
“Once they’re there, we can start to combine different data sources to build more effective models to be able to better understand some of these nuanced things we don’t fully understand,” says Kovacs.
As more resellers have entered the market, Aaron Breimer has found a small yet dedicated contingent of agronomists willing to expand their offerings by further specializing in imagery analysis. Historically if someone wanted satellite imagery, they’d approach the constellation provider like Planet or Airbus.
Now, companies like SkyWatch have arrangements with those providers, allowing them to choose the depth of data, making it easier to access higher resolutions at a more reasonable price point. That’s creating opportunity for intermediate service providers like agronomists who are committing more time and effort to be an information conduit.
This is where precision agriculture is inching towards collaboration, which Breimer concedes is a difficult concept.
“True collaboration is something we’re working on,” says Breimer, vice president of data insights with Deveron, based in Chatham, Ont.
“Agriculture is still very fragmented and collaboration for a lot of people comes down to, ‘As long as you do it my way, I’ll collaborate with you’, but that’s co-operation. There are some amazing agronomists and I would love to work with more of them.”
What else is changing?
The science of getting the imagery hasn’t changed but data files can be massive, given the land area that satellites cover (50 square kilometres equals more than 12,000 acres). Growers and advisers want control of the imagery of their fields, despite the inability of standard laptops for downloads, storage and stitching images required for in-depth analysis.
The decision still comes down to value.
“My definition of value has always been, ‘Is the farmer willing to pay?’” says Breimer.
He agrees the industry isn’t to the point where growers are willing to pay for what many believe is an unproven service, which necessitates those well-trained, collaboration-minded advisers.
“Ultimately those are the people who are going to learn the technology or pass that technology out, and if it’s there, they’re going to assist farmers in being able to adapt to it.”