Sentinel satellite over Earth

Farmers reap space rewards

Eyes in the sky show way to more efficient agriculture

A constellation of EU satellites are helping Australian farmers monitor crop growth, water, and soil nutrients.

The project using the satellite data has been dubbed COALA – Copernicus Applications and services for Low impact agriculture in Australia – and it is funded under the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.

“One of the aims was to transfer technology and services that have been delivered and are already working in Spain and Italy and adapt them to Australian conditions,” says University of New South Wales Professor Graciela Metternicht who is part of a team of partner companies and universities.

While there are other programs which use satellite data for crop and water management, the beauty of COALA is its data and the frequency with which the Sentinel satellites pass over any fixed point of agricultural land once every five days. That ‘revisit’ time compares with once every 16 days for Landsat, the US rival to Sentinel. And, Sentinel’s data is open source, unlike some other satellite data providers who charge for their data.

The satellites orbit at a height of 800 kilometres above the Earth’s surface with an image pixel size –the smallest area they can focus on – of 10 metres squared.

“Each satellite image covers an area of 60 by 60 kilometres, and we can join images together so, once we know the algorithm, we can process hundreds of paddocks at that resolution of 10 metres,” says Professor Metternicht.

That means the scientists can advise on crop growing conditions in different parts of a single paddock, identifying where growth is healthiest and the inputs that have made it so. That allows farmers to adjust their practices throughout a growing season.

The European partner researchers in Spain and Italy might be used to similarly dry conditions, but the scale of Australian farms came as a surprise to them.

“The main difference is the size of the paddocks,” says Professor Metternicht. “We recently had a review by one of the European evaluators who said the scale at which we are working in Australia blew his mind.”

The Sentinel satellites orbit 800km above the Earth’s surface.