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Broadband in the sky – ubiquitous satellite connectivity and imaging opens global market for agri-tech

Agri-TechE Article

Time and place are two key factors in precision agriculture and there are some significant developments happening in Earth observation and connectivity that will be enablers of a new generation of agri-tech. By 2050 there will be transformational change in the way the technology is deployed, enabling automation in even remote areas and the development of intelligent, hybrid connected supply chains – both underpinned by a step-change in satellite connectivity.
Calum Kelly, Agri-Tech Solutions Lead at the Satellite Applications Catapult, spoke at REAP 2021. He sees opportunities for space tech across agri-food systems. “My role at the Catapult is to identify opportunities for space-enabled technology to help solve some of the big challenges across our food system.
The increasing demand in the agri-food industry for technologies – robotics for harvesting, autonomous vehicles across the supply chains – is partly driven by the challenges faced by the food industry, such as access to skilled reliable labour, but there are far wider applications within the sector and the cost of providing ubiquitous coverage and high levels of connectivity – the pre-requisites for this technology – is coming down.
This is partly because it is becoming cheaper to put satellites in space but also it is becoming possible to build and manufacture satellites in space.
As a result, we are seeing the growth of commercial low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite networks (~1200 km) and very Low Earth Orbit – vLEO ( ~550 km) constellations deployed by OneWeb and Starlink respectively, which will provide connectivity to users and enterprises of multiple verticals and this is creating a major disruption to the industry.
The difference between the public programme and the data from commercial satellites is the level of resolution. The Copernicus Sentinel Satellite imagery resolution is 20-25m2, so although this provides plenty of potential use cases, greater resolution is required for customised applications and this is becoming available – at a cost. There are three key capabilities through space tech
There are broadly three capabilities enabled by satellite technologies.
Earth observation – looking at the Earth through optical or radar sensing provides an enormous amount of data for applications such as change detection, weather and climate services, forecasting, and modelling, which enables multiple applications.
There have been significant advances in the accuracy, resolution and frequency of data collection and the trend is towards ubiquitous imagery from space, hyper-localised, in real time and customised.
The cost of access to that data is coming down enormously thanks to the declining cost of putting satellites into space and the increase in applications and end users extracting value from the data.
Connectivity – using satellites to connect different parts of the world, moving data and information around, has huge applications for agriculture as typically food is produced in rural areas of the world where on-the-ground connectivity infrastructure is lacking.
Satellites can fill that gap, with organisations such as OneWeb and the likes of Elon Musk’s Starlink creating big constellations of satellites that, within the next five years, will enable access to broadband anywhere in the world – at the moment we are using cables under the sea!
In addition to broadband, there are other LEO constellations with a focus on IoT that would be of interest for rural areas and farming as they will provide connectivity to sensors (LoRaWAN, NB-IoT) from the field directly to the satellite.
Again, the cost of access to that connectivity is coming down. Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) – this is enabling hyper-local positioning of devices, like robotics, autonomous vehicles and drones, which in turn facilitates asset tracking, the monitoring of products moving around the world. This hypersensitive local positioning is only possible because of the significant constellations of satellites working together.
In the case of OneWeb, the plan is to add PNT capabilities to their second generation of satellites (in service in 2024-2025) a service that will compete with Galileo or GPS.
This would then enable extremely precise robotics. Still challenges for satellite technologies
There are some challenges for the use of satellite data where the cost-benefit has not yet been established.
For example, in prediction and forecasting, the level of resolution needed to look at the maturity or ripening of crops is very high and expensive. The investment case might not be there yet, but if the cost drops in future it might be.
Also, optical satellite imagery is often blocked by clouds (which is particularly problematic in the UK, for example) and struggles with distinguishing different types of green, which is a requirement for classification of ground cover.
It is thought that advances in LEO satellites can potentially overcome those issues and that other technologies may also fill the gaps – for example drones are becoming more advanced and can fly below the cloud line.
Radar Satellites cut through the cloud and fire a beam down to Earth, which will bounce back to build up an image of what’s on the ground.
Satellites are not the silver bullet solution to all challenges facing our global food system. However, there is a specific role that they can play, particularly alongside other technologies – the value is in bringing those technologies together.

REAP 2021: Changing Time(s) for Agriculture10th November 2021

Imagine a world where agriculture is not constrained by time. The ability to manage and manipulate time is increasing and REAP 2021 will explore the advances in technology and breakthroughs in science that is making this possible.
REAP brings together people from across the agri-tech ecosystem who believe that innovation is the engine for change. The conference bridges the gap between producer needs and technology solutions and showcases exciting agri-tech start-ups.