Agronomy by satellite

Photo of Bernard Coquil

Satellite imagery that combines real-time remote sensing together with agronomy measurements may be the next advance in precision farming in Australia.

French satellite and remote sensing specialist Bernard Coquil says the experience in Europe shows that the new technology of satellite-sensing within a dedicated agronomy package is making farmers even more efficient and profitable.

[Photo: Bernard Coquil: "Unlike existing systems which only provide historical information, Farmstar provides real-time satellite images" Photo by Brad Collis]

Mr Coquil, project manager for the Farmstar Program with the internationally recognised French EADS Astrium space research organisation, spoke to a large audience of researchers, advisers and farmers at a recent GRDC Grains Research Update in Adelaide.

He said that remote sensing, which combined agronomic measurements, was a space-age tool that could make significant contributions to precision agriculture and crop management at the sub-field level, and help growers make real-time management decisions.

The new imaging system was launched in Europe two years ago after several years of research and development and validation trials. Called Farmstar, it is now being trialled in Australia.

It combines remote sensing and agronomic detail to provide farmers with satellite-based recommendation maps for the application of nitrogen and/or chemicals and detecting crop stress.

Mr Coquil said EADS Astrium expected its Farmstar service to be used on more than 200,000 hectares of crops in 16,000 fields owned by 6000 farmers in France, Germany and the UK this year.

"Unlike existing systems which only provide historical information, Farmstar provides real-time satellite images," he said. "It uses biophysical parameters such as leaf area index (LAI) or chlorophyll content, determined from satellite images at specific stages of crop growth, in agronomic models to generate real-time recommendations.

"It tells the farmer, and the agronomist, what is going on in a paddock in real-time terms."

Mr Coquil said Farmstar had been developed after many years of research and development by EADS Astrium in partnership with leading technical agronomic institutes in Europe and the UK.

He said its key feature was its ability to precisely measure, from satellite images, the biophysical parameters of crop developments during its growing stages.

"These parameters include the crop canopy status measured as biomass, chlorophyll level via LAI (defined in the number of leaves per square centimetre of soil) and tiller numbers, all of which are strongly correlated with nitrogen status," he said. "The system can also measure the weed status in a crop.

"In partnership with various agronomic institutes, we have been able to integrate these parameters into agronomic models to help growers make better and more accurate crop management decisions."

Mr Coquil said Farmstar used three SPOT satellites with a capability to pass over each nominated field every two to four days.

He said the service cost was based on an annual per hectare subscription, which in Australia he expected to be about $15/ha.

Mr Coquil said that on signing up to use Farmstar, a grower had to supply:

The grower would then receive four to six maps for wheat and up to three for canola, and know the exact status and requirements of each crop.

The wheat package includes:

For canola, it includes:

Mr Coquil said Farmstar was also useful in early stress detection and helping farmers make the right irrigation decisions.

Early trial results with Farmstar in Australia had demonstrated that on canola, decreasing nitrogen input by 25 to 50kg/ha increased the oil content from 0.5 to one point without reducing yield, resulting in increased profits of more than $50/ha on a variable rate basis.

For wheat, he said the net profit increase was between $25/ha and $35/ha, taking into account the gain on plant-growth-rate for lodging risk management and savings on nitrogen.