There aren’t many individuals who could say that “they were there” when remote imagery for agriculture was in its infancy back in the early 1970s. One who can is John Ahlrichs, who did his Masters thesis on remote imagery in the latter part of that decade, and who continues to toil away on the technology’s behalf.
After more than two decades working in the US market, Ahlrichs took his expertise and enthusiasm overseas to a company called RapidEye AG, based in Brandenburg, Germany. As vice president of sales and marketing, his job is to find partners anywhere in the world to help RapidEye bring its soon-to-be realized satellite imagery service to agriculture.
In August, the company launched five satellites for gathering remote imagery. “It’s all up and running and taking pictures,” says Ahlrichs. “It’s still being fine-tuned so the pictures are sharp and the satellites are in the right orbit, and they are processing correctly images. It will take until the end of year to get that done, but they work.”
Agriculture has heard about the promise of satellite imagery for years, and while there are companies out there making it work, it’s not a simple task. RapidEye is trying to solve that issue by providing a reliably repetitive, wide-angle image at a high resolution.
“A lot of people who care about remote imagery understand it, what it can do, and how it can help manage systems better,” says Ahlrichs. “The limitations on the success of image-based solutions in ag has been the lack of reliability, and the lack of an ag based business model.”
Growers and consultants need imagery that provides repetitive coverage over the same area throughout the growing season, he asserts, and no one has been able to deliver that at a resolution that works for farmers. Other systems haven’t been able to deliver the magic combination of resolution, frequency, consistency, affordability, and wide coverage, but Ahlrichs says that RapidEye is poised to bring all of these to the market.
“Nobody can run a nationwide business because there’s been no reliability and repeatability in it,” says Ahlrichs. “You cannot buy bits and pieces. You have to be able to buy a solution that covers your whole business.”
RapidEye intends to take a hard run at solving both of those problems, which Ahlrichs views as the biggest limitations for reliably implementing an imaging program into agriculture. “Because of the five satellites and their significant imaging capabilities — we can image 4 million square kilometers per day — we can get repeatable coverage across the whole of US production ag every two to three weeks through the growing season.
“And we are imaging whole areas rather than just snapping pictures, so the imagery becomes a fixed cost that allows us or our customers to pick here and there and pay for what they need,” he explains. “With that, you overcome two of the infrastructure problems.”
Ahlrichs is looking for partners because of the wide diversity of agriculture worldwide.
This is not a solution that fits into a standard work flow process — it needs to be developed on a case by case basis. Agronomy is part of their plan to partner, but so are insurance companies, trade organizations, and agencies interested in monitoring crop status throughout the world. “A lot of the people interested in us want to know what’s going on in other countries,” says Ahlrichs.