Airbus Defence and Space

Ploughing a better furrow

Arable land management from space

Ile de Re © CNES 2005 - Distribution Airbus Defence and Space / Spot Image

Ile de Ré, France © CNES 2005 - Distribution Airbus Defence and Space / Spot Image 

Farmers still look to the heavens for guidance – but now they are not supplicating the gods or seeking good omens in the rosy bloom of the evening sky. No, they are taking advice on precision agro-management from a satellite technology-based service devised and delivered by Airbus Defence and Space: FARMSTAR.

Consider a typical bucolic image. On a cereal farm in France, a farmer is driving a tractor across a field. But look closer – in the cab, a high-tech computer screen displays satellite image maps of this very patch of ground overlaid with colour-coded blocks and tables of figures. Our famer deciphers the information easily. The different zones identify those areas of her acreage where there is a shortage of nitrogen, and the tables and charts tell her exactly the dosages of fertilisers and phytosanitary products necessary; the location data for the plots of land requiring treatment are uploaded to the tractor’s on-board satnav system, and she’s off to apply the precise amounts of fertiliser and pesticides exactly where they are needed, at exactly the right time.Farmstar

The 10,000 farmers subscribing to the FARMSTAR service receive these highly detailed personalised diagnostic and advice bulletins, via a web portal, at all the key stages of the growth cycle. This gives them a powerful tool for managing their crops with unprecedented precision and efficiency.

They save time, since suspect and deficient zones have been identified for them, and money, because they can rationalise purchase of fertiliser and other chemical products and optimise their use. Productivity is up, and by avoiding over-application of chemicals they are reducing their environmental footprint. This access to precise, field-level information means good environmental, economic and social stewardship.

The brainchild of Airbus Defence and Space’s GEO-Information division and agronomy institutes Arvalis-Institut du Végétal and CETIOM, FARMSTAR was first marketed commercially in 2002 following several years of research and development backed by company investment. At that point the service only treated wheat crops and covered a modest 4,000 hectares, but it quickly took root, with subscriptions doubling over two years and other crops, such as barley and colza, added to the portfolio. Today, there are 10,000 FARMSTAR subscribers working around half a million hectares in France. The reason for such a success? The pooling of the three partners’ complementary best-in-class expertise – satellite remote sensing and agronomic modelling – is the essence of this fruitful example of corporate entrepreneurship bringing sustainable value innovation.

How it works

Observation satellites operated (and in most cases built) by Airbus Defence and Space, circling at an altitude of 800 kilometres, take high-resolution images of the terrain and extremely accurate measurements, in various visible and infrared wavelengths, of the radiant solar energy absorbed and reflected from the land surface across the farm territory. This level of reflectance will differ according to the condition and growth stage of the vegetation and the data recorded by the satellites’ sensors indicate factors such as degree of soil moisture, surface temperature, leaf cover, level of chlorophyll content and photosynthesis activity. The collected remote-sensing data are then correlated with agronomic models developed by Arvalis’ and CETIOM’s experts to produce the ‘recommendation or advice cards’, divided into very small intra-field plots, for each individual subscriber to the FARMSTAR service, setting out prescriptions for exactly the right amounts of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides to use, as well as exactly where and when to apply them. This analysis gives the farmers information on not only where their crops are under stress, but also why – and supplies the appropriate remedy.


FARMSTAR - sustainable farming with satellites

Taking wheat as an example, the farmer receives five advice cards from the FARMSTAR service between February and May:

In February, the card shows how much nitrogen has been absorbed by the crop, enabling calculation of the total provisional nitrogen dose for the plot. At the end of March, the potential yield card arrives followed by the rain damage risk card at the beginning of April. These provide critical information on the potential yield and aspect of the plot, or implementation of measures to regulate growth.

FARMSTAR: Sustainable farming with satellites

At the end of April, an updated potential yield card is received, so the farmer can check that her plot is developing correctly. This card is also important for enabling the farmer to quickly identify any possible anomaly.

Finally in May, a nitrogen recommendation card is received, in order to refine the third nitrogen dose. 

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