Farmers may seek help from above for spraying advice

Andrew Pylypchuk of Planet explained how the company’s Dove satellite works during the Bayer Agronomy Summit in Banff, Alta. | Robin Booker photo Andrew Pylypchuk of Planet explained how the company’s Dove satellite works during the Bayer Agronomy Summit in Banff, Alta. | Robin Booker photo

BANFF, Alta. — A satellite system that takes high-resolution pictures of the entire planet every day will soon help growers make in-season spraying decisions.

Planet’s Dove satellites make up the world’s largest constellation of earth-imaging satellites and act like a line scanner for the planet.

The satellites are evenly spaced along the same orbital path and constantly take pictures of the Earth as it rotates within this orbital line.

At least 100 satellites are needed for this system to achieve the goal of taking a picture of the entire planet every day, which is set to be met when an Indian rocket launches dozen’s of Dove satellites in early January.

A Dove satellite weighs 4.7 kilograms and uses the same low cost technology found in consumer good such as cellphones and laptops.

Its simple design and use of low-cost technology enable a low-cost platform that costs much less than other satellites, said Andrew Pylypchuk of Planet during the Bayer Agronomy Summit in Banff late last year.

“Solar cells recharge the batteries that are inside the satellite, that is usually made out of aluminum,” he said.

“The telescope inside takes up the majority of the space. At the very back we have the processor and some of the controls that point it, so reaction wheels and magnetic coils and so forth. And of course the digital camera back that actually takes the photographs and downloads that data.”

Planet’s Mission Control team has developed software that allows a handful of people to manage the system, including the download of images to 30 ground stations around the globe.

This new data stream of images could be very handy for growers during the growing season.

“It’s about a 10 foot pixel size, so they’ll (farmers) be able to see good in-field variability, but they wouldn’t be able to see the actual plant themselves,” Pylypchuk said.

Planet plans to sell the data to established agriculture service providers rather than to individual growers.

“They need to have some expertise using data and deriving analytics from the imagery to actually maximize the value of what we’re providing,” Pylypchuk said.

Agriculture companies have already signed deals with Planet, such as Farmers Edge, the Climate Corp., Descartes Labs and Bayer CropScience.

Bayer has said it hopes to implement the technology through its Digital Farming department, which will use the satellite images to create zones of in-field variability that would guide zone-based fungicide applications for sclerotinia in canola.

Warren Bills of Bayer Crop-Science said it is a fairly simple process, even though it will have to incorporate sprayer technology, sectional control, prescriptions and mapping.

“It involves identifying fields of canola that have high amounts of variability and targeting areas in that field that are higher producing with high yield potential, and consequently high amounts of disease risk, and turning the sprayer on in those areas,” Bills said.

“We also know in those same fields there are areas that have lower potential, and if we were to apply in those areas, we may not see a positive return.”

Fungicide rates will be constant and either applied, or not, depending on the how thick the crop is in the zone.

Planet satellite imagery from mid- to late-June will be used when the crop is at its peak vegetative state to establish the zones.

“It’s that snapshot that tells us at about a week before spraying where those thinner and thicker parts of the field are,” Bills said.

Bayer studied sclerotinia levels last year by zones and the efficacy of fungicide application by zone to ensure growers would see a higher rate of return from their fungicide application in canola when using zone applications.

“We measured infestation levels of sclerotinia by zone, and we also measured the effect of Proline fungicide by zone,” he said.

“The data supported our assumptions. It supported that in your higher biomass areas you were generally seeing a higher return on your invested fungicide acre.”

Bills said the studies have been based on a small sample size of sites and that further study is planned for 2017.

Growers may continue to spray the entire crop on their first pass with fungicides and use a zone-determined application only for the second fungicide pass.

Bills said the ability to spray herbicides only on the parts of fields that need them give growers another option, and they may be more inclined to perform a second fungicide application because it will have an improved return on investment.

“If you think of how growers have to apply fungicide, they drive to their field and they look at their field and say, ‘am I going to apply this whole field or not,’ ” he said.

“I think what this process unlocks is for them to have the ability to say, ‘I just want to apply parts of this field,’ and we use technology to let them do that.”

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