Satellite has long played a role in agriculture — from GPS satellites enabling precision agriculture, to data from Landsat observation satellites informing decisions and forecasts related to crop yield and water usage.
Today, improvements in Earth observation models and an explosion of availability in commercial imagery, along with new applications for remote IoT and heavy equipment connectivity present a greenfield opportunity for the satellite industry to work more closely with the agricultural sector. There’s evidence of new momentum in the market, like John Deere’s satellite RFP to connect thousands of tractors, and new geospatial products and startups eager to serve the market.
Satellite imagery has been instrumental in dealing with the changes the agriculture sector has gone through in the past 100 years, says Matt Harman, Commercial Agriculture Practice lead at Esri.
“One hundred years ago, a farmer’s farm was maybe 50 acres. These farms were small because it’s manual labor [to] go out in the field and plant seeds, to scout and find disease or pest infestation. Over the years, those farms have combined and they’ve been bought up. Now they're giant enterprises where you might have a field that's 1,000 acres. You can't realistically scout that field to understand if there's a problem,” Harman says. “You have to rely on tools like satellite imagery to give you a vegetative index. Without eyes above, I don't know how you would do that in the size and magnitude of how they operate today.”
Esri is the leading supplier of GIS software, taking a geographic approach to problem-solving. The company works with both satellite imagery companies that provide imagery for its software, and customers and partners that use Esri’s technology and integrate it into bespoke solutions for different markets, including agriculture.
Harman has worked with the agricultural industry for more than a decade, and works with growers and farmers co-ops, finance and insurance for agriculture, and ag retailers that provide products like fertilizer. He describes seeing a digital transformation in the way farms operate.
“A decade ago, the average farmer probably didn't care about technology. That has completely changed,” he says. “This new generation of farmers are technical. They're demanding technology, they have degrees, they have hands-on experience with how technology can benefit their return on investment. That’s changed a lot.”
Today, farming operations generate a huge amount of data, like the location of seeds, soil content of a field, condition of a combine, and more. That data is used to make farming more productive and more efficient.
Harman says there’s an expectation that artificial intelligence technology will play a larger role in helping growers operate their farms and uncover potential issues. Smart platforms can converge data that’s collected by in-field sensors with satellite or drone imagery to help farmers make decisions.
“At Esri, we’re working on a lot of geo-AI technology. As farms become larger and imagery becomes more available, I don't know how you can operate without the expectation that technology is going to do some of the work for you,” Harman says. “I think we are going to get to a point where artificial intelligence has to play a role, at least to identify the areas that require further inspection.”
NASA is increasing its investment in agriculture to improve how Earth observation data is used on farms. It recently opened a new consortium NASA Acres, billing it as the space agency for U.S. farmers and ranchers. NASA Acres just kicked off in April 2023, and is bringing together scientists and agriculture stakeholders. It is commissioned under NASA’s Applied Sciences Program and led by the University of Maryland.
NASA Acres Director Alyssa Whitcraft says that in the past five to six years there has been an explosion in the availability of commercial satellite imagery, cloud computing, and processing models, along with the availability of imagery from Europe’s Sentinel satellites.
At the same time, the agriculture sector faces tough challenges to ensure a sustainable food supply and sustainable agricultural communities.
“Farmers are getting less cents on the dollar of what consumers spend on food. That's challenging economically. It's not a viable future in some cases. A lot of rural youth are leaving because they don't see opportunities in their communities,” Whitcraft says. “For us to create a truly sustainable food system, it’s not just about environmental sustainability. It’s about profitability, economic sustainability, and the social fabric that keeps those communities together. That ties directly into a stronger tech workforce.”
Whitcraft was previously the deputy director of NASA Harvest, a similar consortium focused on strengthening food security and agriculture with Earth observation data globally. The new NASA Acres is focused solely on the U.S. Its goal is to create a richer understanding of what is happening in agriculture — how it's changing, what's working, and what's not working — and put that information directly in the hands of farmers.
“There is a big appetite for the knowledge we can provide,” Whitcraft says. “Another objective is to have more tools that use satellite data in the hands of farmers, ranchers, and policymakers, ag advisors — all the people who contribute to creating enough food to sustain the population and do so in a way that's sustainable — environmentally, economically, and socially,” she says.
One challenge in rural areas in the U.S. and other parts of the world is broadband availability, not just for home internet use, but also to enable smart agriculture. The value of data is lost if devices are disconnected, and the data cannot be used.
Agricultural giant John Deere has shared an internal analysis that estimates about 75 to 85 percent of the United States is covered by 3G or better terrestrial connectivity, but coverage can vary greatly over fields. And in Brazil, a nation that is a major global agricultural producer, John Deere estimates just 20 to 30 percent of the country is covered.
To deal with this lack of coverage and fully enable connected and autonomous agriculture, John Deere made a large statement of intent last year, bringing the satellite industry together to call for a solution to provide always-on communications for a fleet of thousands of farm equipment. John Deere is currently in testing with potential vendors. A formal decision is expected this year, with a solution reaching the market in 2024.
Many in the industry say that Deere’s vote of confidence in satellite has brought more attention to the industry’s potential for the agriculture sector.
“When someone comes forward with an RFP of that size, it captures companies’ attention. Then they start looking at the opportunity,” says Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association. “One of the great advantages to John Deere taking the leadership position that they are, I suspect, means that other companies are going to look at the same kind of opportunity just to remain competitive.”
Stroup recently testified before the House Committee on Agriculture, neatly summing up how satellite technology is poised to help farmers with capabilities like rural broadband, IoT, Earth imaging, and weather forecasting.
“Satellites are capable of providing broadband and IoT to rural and remote areas of the country where it remains uneconomical for terrestrial services to deploy. … Satellite enables remote farms with livestock sensors, soil monitors, and autonomous farming equipment in rural America, far beyond where terrestrial wireless and wireline can reach or make economic sense to deploy,” Stroup told Congress. “Earth imaging satellites provide regular high-resolution imagery that allows farmers to determine when to plant, water, or fertilize crops and can be used to provide crop yield estimates, conduct scout monitoring, and monitor global food security.”
Stroup testified to inform the committee on satellite capabilities as Congress is preparing the Farm Bill, which authorizes U.S. government spending to provide assistance related to food and farms. The process happens every five years, and the current Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30. Rural broadband funding is often part of the Farm Bill, and Stroup urges Congress to ensure satellite technology has an equal opportunity to receive federal funds.
He tells Via Satellite there’s still a perception that satellite internet service comes with low speeds and high cost, but the capabilities of the industry have expanded much faster than people realize.
“The point I was seeking to make is — don't exclude any technology, make sure it's technology-inclusive,” Stroup says. “We've seen with some of the programs in the past, the intention is to be technology-neutral, only to have restrictions on the types of services that can be provided or other limitations, whether it's based on symmetrical speeds, latency. Unfortunately in many instances, the satellite industry has been negatively affected.”
Iridium is currently in the business of connecting tractors and farming sensors, and working with agricultural OEMs to understand the value in being connected. For example, some of AGCO’s tractors are connected to Iridium’s L-band network with a dual-mode telematics service for diagnostics and predictive maintenance. And AgSense has an Iridium-connected sensor that tracks soil moisture, temperature, and salinity.
Oftentimes, OEMs only take cellular connectivity into account because they know how to deploy it, and think satellite comes with large antennas and a high price, says Gregg Malakoff, Iridium director of Business Development. But that mindset is changing as businesses see the benefit of being connected.
Malakoff says he’s currently talking to four to five major OEMs around the world at various stages of development. Signing these deals takes time — there’s a long lead time for a big company to integrate new technology into its products. “It's a very long sales cycle, but we're having productive conversations with most of the major brands,” he says.
Malakoff says technology has become a reality in agriculture, and the market for satellite is just getting started as more and more companies in the industry see the benefit of connectivity.
“Most technology needs to connect to the internet or cloud to work. It’s no secret that wireless coverage on farms tends to be pretty bad. It can’t work if you can’t connect it. We provide that reliable satellite connectivity to farm equipment, adjacent systems, and sensors,” Malakoff says.
“There’s a value to be gained in being connected,” he adds. “OEMs and technology buyers understand that they can increase their value for the product that they deliver to the grower, and reach customers that they couldn't reach before, because the customer had no connection. When they understand that — we will see even more adoption.” VS