In the large open spaces of Planet Labs’ offices in San Francisco, CA, last spring, mounted screens tracked the locations of orbiting satellites beaming data to be processed and analyzed, a special team was sequestered away building new proprietary devices, and Trevor Hammond, Director of Communications for the company, was showing a visitor a rare specimen: one of its satellites that had survived an accidental rocket launch explosion almost fully intact and was recovered. It was roughly the size of a shoe box and clearly had been made to last just a few years in orbit, yet it provided valuable space imagery and data for untold uses and applications among Planet Labs’ many clients, who now include the Climate Corp., Agrian, Farmers Edge, Wilbur-Ellis, Crop Production Services, and FarmLogs.
Welcome to the world of “agile aerospace” — populated by so-called “disposable satellites” that are small and getting even smaller and are built at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites so that they can provide high-quality, frequently captured, and unrelentingly less expensive aerial imagery for many industries including agriculture. Farmers and advisors, monitoring fields from on high, might detect changes and gain insights that otherwise are unnoticeable on the ground or even by UAVs, thereby “eliminating what we think of as data scarcity,” said Josh Alban, VP of Sales for Planet Labs.
“I think the quote I hear most often from ag retailers is, ‘If I could get at least one cloud-free image a week, think of what I could do,’” said Ryan Schacht, who came over from ESRI and now is Planet Labs’ Agriculture Account Executive. Even better is when that imagery can be integrated quickly and automatically via APIs into precision ag tools like Climate’s FieldView and Wilbur-Ellis’ AgVerdict. “People want images in a matter of hours, and they don’t want to have to work very hard to get them,” Schacht said.
Wilbur-Ellis, he noted, is using Planet’s data not only to deliver insights to growers but also as a market-development tool as the company expands beyond its strong Western base to provide value to Midwestern row crop growers.
And the potential benefits of satellite imagery to all sustainability initiatives also cannot be ignored. “Sustainability in my mind is just keeping accurate records, and knowing you have accurate data that supports crop records,” Schacht said. Enabling growers to produce “artifacts” for any given crop they’ve produced “gets us a long way toward being able to accomplish sustainability because we have the underpinning data to track and measure” crop production.
Schacht said he believes adoption of precision agriculture “is all about continuing down the integration path. I actually think these technologies are becoming integrated quite rapidly. If you think about the fact that you can integrate different soil sensors and weather stations with imagery that’s less than 24 hours old, then have that waiting for somebody in form of a crop scouting report or whatever the case might be — that’s pretty amazing.”
As for the future, “our mission one is to image the entire earth every day,” Schacht said, but after that is a vision that is “almost like the Internet of Things extending into space” — launching really low-cost satellites into space in a really short amount of time. “How is that going to impact farming and sustainability 10 years into the future, 20 years into the future?”