L anny Faleide founded his Agri ImaGIS company, now called Satshot Inc., in 1994 on an idea that may have given offense to the day’s tillers of the earth: the idea that farmers didn’t really know their fields. Not, at least, in the intimate detail that a multispectral imaging satellite, having passed over their farmland hundreds of times, recording images in the visible and infrared spectra over the course of years, knew them.
His first difficulty, however, wasn’t winning converts but gathering such imagery in sufficient quantities and, especially, distributing it. The Internet was in its infancy and lacked the capability to transmit or share such huge datasets. They had to be physically sent on floppy discs or other storage devices. With few high-definition satellites in orbit, Faleide used imagery from the French company Spot Image.
But he and his young, Fargo, North Dakota-based company found a solution to the problem of distributing data in the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Department of Forest Resources in 1999.
Five years earlier, a group of faculty and students there and in the university’s Computer Science program had won funds from Goddard Space Flight Center through NASA’s Public Access to Remote Sensing Data program to develop ForNet (short for “forest network”), a set of applications that would let the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources use satellite imagery and geospatial data regarding the state’s forests in its day-to-day business. But they had run into the same problem Faleide had.
“We went into ForNet thinking our main task would be to build these applications using existing technology, but it didn’t exist,” says Thomas Burk, who was a professor in the department at the time and oversaw the project’s development.
What the team needed was a server that could process raster and vector data and would allow data products to be placed on the Web, searched for, and accessed. “We just sort of assumed, ‘Well, certainly somebody’s going to develop that capability, and we’ll just use it to develop these solutions,’” Burk says. “But nobody did.”
A mix of forestry and computer science graduate students ended up working on the effort, which became almost entirely a software development project. What the team produced, though, was a wildly successful open source development environment known as MapServer, which is still used by thousands of active Web sites today, including Satshot’s.
Faleide discovered MapServer after approaching TechLink, an organization at Montana State University that was, at the time, funded by NASA, with the mission of transferring the Space Agency’s technology to the region’s private sector.
“He was definitely ahead of the technology and ahead of his time,” says Will Swearingen, who is still the organization’s executive director, although it is now primarily funded by the Department of Defense. “No one was using the term cloud computing, but he was thinking along those lines.”
So was the MapServer team, which had recently made their server operational and had finally started work on forestry applications. Agri ImaGIS “seemed like it would be a really good fit for extending MapServer from just forestry to agriculture in general,” Swearingen says.
He introduced the two, and Faleide became MapServer’s first commercial user (Spinoff 2000).
“We never would have been able to do this without the MapServer core we started using back in the ’90s,” Faleide says, noting that, thanks to the NASA-funded technology, his company had an online map delivery system three years before even Google had such a thing.
Satshot has benefited from major advances in Internet and imaging technology since the turn of the millennium, as well as an increasing number of commercial imaging satellites, but the basic idea of precision agriculture through remote sensing remains more or less unchanged. Images captured with different spectral bands, particularly in the visible and near-infrared range, reveal crop density throughout a field, creating a sort of “biomass map.”
Pointing to such an image of an 80-acre field of his own, Faleide notes that greener areas indicate heavier plant production, while a yellow region represents a more sparsely vegetated hilltop. In this particular field, about 75 percent of the yield comes from just 35 to 40 percent of the area. “We want to try to increase yield in the really good areas and quit feeding too much crop input into the poorer areas,” he explains.
This means depositing a higher seed population where the soil is able to handle it, laying down more fertilizer in these areas, and, since denser populations are more prone to disease, spreading more fungicide.
By targeting resources rather than using a “blanket approach,” Faleide says, farmers not only save on resources but also reduce the amounts of chemicals and fertilizers that run off into watersheds.
The images can also reveal mistakes and problems that could be fixed in the future. Showing a shot of another field, he points out that the dark circle of vegetation fed by the farmer’s pivot irrigation system is streaked with rings of yellow, indicating a problem with the sprinkler heads. “Anything linear, straight, or in a pivot is human error,” he says. “Whenever we see a field that’s not uniform, it means there are problems. Some of them you can manage, some of them you can’t.”
An image of a 300-acre field in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan reveals straight, perpendicular lines crisscrossing the entire area, with the horizontal traces more obvious. “When this farmer saw this field, he literally jumped out of his chair,” Faleide says. The wings of the farmer’s air seeder were uneven, with part of the device set about half an inch too shallow, resulting in lines of thinner vegetation.