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5 mins read 12 Aug 2020

The CSIRO Bringing Space Technology to Agriculture

As population growth and climate change put pressure on food production and agriculture, new tools from the CSIRO will help farmers to get the most efficient use out of their land and livestock.

The use of space technology in agriculture is set to increase significantly over the next few decades as the global population is expected to approach 10 billion people by 2050. Credit: Engineering & Technology

Farmers needing to map their paddock boundaries have just received a boost from the CSIRO. A new product known as ePaddocks will use satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to perform the sometimes laborious task automatically, and it is available for purchase now on the CSIRO website.

With something like 1.7 million paddocks in Australia’s grain growing regions, one of the challenges faced by farmers here is to identify paddock boundaries. Unlike property boundaries, which are recorded in local council or title records, paddock boundaries are not recorded anywhere.

However, farm management software, used for services like crop growth monitoring and satellite-assisted fertiliser application, requires this information, and so paddock boundaries must be drawn in manually. This is a time-consuming exercise that may need to be repeated every growing season.

Satellites for Mapping

Satellite image overlaid by ePaddocks showing the paddock boundaries (in yellow) on 45 x 45 square kilometres of Western Australia. Credit: Copernicus Sentinel data 2019

This problem has now been solved by experts at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO. Scientists there have developed a new product called ePaddocks that uses computer algorithms to examine satellite imagery and determine paddock boundaries based on vegetation signatures and land features.

Dr Franz Waldner, a CSIRO remote sensing specialist, said ePaddocks was highly accurate and detailed, and simple to use. Being based on artificial intelligence meant that it could be used for crop identification and rural intelligence in addition to paddock-level monitoring.

“Our method only needs one satellite image taken at any point in the growing season to distinguish the boundaries. It relies on data driven processes and decisions rather than assumptions about what’s on the ground.”

Addressing a Need

The next few decades will see the world’s population approach 10 billion people, a dramatic and rapid rise that is set to put pressure on global food supplies and agricultural practices.

With agriculture alone worth around $60 billion here in Australia, and significant challenges due to climate change looming, technology is increasingly being deployed to better utilise arable land and try to mitigate the effects of drought.

A new generation of information and communications technology is expected to deliver the next wave of productivity growth in Australian agriculture, with new equipment and the data it generates changing how farms are managed. A big part of this is the ability for farmers to access information, from climate data, soil properties, and the condition of their crops, to satellite imagery of paddocks and farm management areas.

Being able to do so will help farmers to better plan the timing and amount of irrigation needed by crops, detect diseases or soil nutrient deficiencies earlier, and fertilise paddocks with better precision. New, affordable technologies like ePaddocks are going to be critical to helping producers become more efficient, productive, and profitable.

Satellites for Communications

A Ceres Tag, the world’s first and only commercial direct to satellite livestock information platform with proprietary smart ear tag. Credit: Ceres Tag

But ePaddocks is not the first space-based service that the CSIRO has melded with the agricultural industry.

Pastures from Space was developed in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, and the Western Australian Land Information Authority, and is a tool to provide near real-time information at whole-of-farm and within-paddock levels for Australian agricultural businesses. Data comes from MODIS (the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) onboard the NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua. The two satellites have been operating since the early 2000’s and pass over Western Australia at least 14 times per week.

Although Pastures from Space has been available to producers for more than a decade, continual enhancements and updates have ensured its relevancy in the agricultural sector. The system has recently been upgraded to estimate the green feed on offer (FOO) and the pasture growth rate (PGR) in an area of just 6.25 hectares.

Also making use of orbital satellites is a recently developed system for livestock monitoring. In partnership with Australian agtech company Ceres Tag, the CSIRO is developing next generation smart ear tags that will remove the time-consuming and costly challenge of locating and monitoring the activity of livestock.

By linking animals directly to satellites without the need for on-farm towers, the smart tags give producers greater control over grazing management, and can alert them to illness or if an animal is giving birth. Each tag lasts the lifetime of the animal without requiring a battery change and can be upgraded as new applications become available in the future.

Agri Space

As the cost of making satellites and launching rockets becomes cheaper, we are seeing space-enabled services used across a more diverse range of industries. In agriculture, the ability to easily map large areas of the Earth and establish and maintain communication links to remote areas means that satellite technology is certain to be increasingly used in the future.

As the agricultural industry transitions to this new way of doing business, innovative organisations like the CSIRO will be key to Australia’s stake in the new space-based economy.