As drought-stricken farms limp through the last harvest of the 20th century, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are using remote sensing technology developed for the space program to improve crop management and increase profitability.
The availability of inexpensive agricultural products for consumers in the next century could depend on such capabilities, meaning the difference between boom and bust for farmers -- and feast or famine for the six billion residents of planet Earth.
At the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, managed by the Marshall Center, NASA scientists are collaborating with university researchers in Alabama and Georgia to apply remote sensing technology to a sophisticated agricultural technique called precision farming.
In precision farming, growers break fields down into regions, or cells, analyzing growth characteristics of each cell and improving crop health and yield by applying precise amounts of seed, fertilizer and pesticides as needed.
Traditionally, farmers have lacked the ability to make those close analyses of specific cells. When they fertilized their crops, they simply spread the fertilizer uniformly across the entire field.
"Now, using remote sensing feedback, we can tailor that input more precisely," says Doug Rickman, lead researcher for the Global Hydrology and Climate Center.
Remote sensing involves the gathering of information for analysis via planes or orbiting satellites. It measures electromagnetic radiation, including thermal energy reflected or emitted by all natural and synthetic objects.
That makes remote sensing ideal for Rickman’s research. "We can fly over an area and precisely map its plant quality and soil makeup -- including mineral variation and organic carbon content -- in approximately 6-foot increments," he says. "Farmers have sought this ability for 30 years."
"We can point to areas that will always have low yield," adds Paul Mask, professor of agronomy at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. "If the maximum capability of an area is 50 bushels an acre, there is no need to fertilize for 120 bushels. It does no good."
Such precise crop maintenance benefits society in another way: "Excess nitrogen can leak into groundwater," Mask says. "Other fertilizers can increase pollution problems, threatening public health. By adding only the amount of fertilizer the land and the crop can effectively use, we can reduce such problems."
"The true potential is not simply improving yield," Rickman agrees. "It’s improving stewardship of the land."
When NASA began studying precision agriculture techniques in the 1970s, the practice was hampered by researchers’ inability to accomplish such precise mapping. Measuring yield was also inconvenient, time-consuming and often imprecise.
"To measure a single field of 80 to 100 acres, you might take six soil samples from different parts of the field, send them to a lab, and wait days or weeks for the results," Rickman says. "And six samples don’t give you a very accurate measure anyway -- soil quality can vary dramatically all across that area."
The advent of global positioning systems and remote sensing technology changed all that. "Now farmers can intelligently control their systems," Rickman says, "before they ever plant a seed."
That striking discovery was impetus enough for researchers -- led by the Global Hydrology and Climate Center, the University of Georgia in Athens, Auburn University, and Alabama A&M University in Normal, Ala. -- to proceed on a larger scale.
According to Dr. J.M. Wersinger of Auburn University, project coordinator and National Space Grant Program Fellow, "The project is part of a national effort by the Space Grant program, the Earth Science Enterprise and Cooperative Extension Systems to bring the benefits of NASA data and expertise to users."
The Space Grant Consortiums of Alabama and Georgia and the Agriculture Extension program in each state provide funding. NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Miss., is also participating, providing researchers with the equipment and aircraft to accomplish their remote-sensing test flights.
Among the most important players are the half-dozen farmers in Alabama and Georgia who provide their fields for precision farming test sites.
"This is applied research," Wersinger says. "We could have done our experiments in an antiseptic laboratory environment, but we understood from the beginning that we needed to involve real farmers in the program. They are full partners in this endeavor."
NASA and its partners recognize that the research is still in its infancy. Rickman and his colleagues are still exploring "the breadth of potential understanding yet to be gained from the new technology," he says.
"With current technology, nations can show the estimated yield of Kansas or Kazakhstan," Rickman says. "But that doesn’t help the individual farmer. We’re seeking to provide a system that will help farmers improve the efficiency of their fields and their crop management techniques. In the end, that will benefit everyone."
Materials provided by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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