UND's AgCam will be operational in time for 2009 growing season
The University of North Dakota and NASA have teamed up to hire a new, better scout for farmers, as AgCam was shuttled into orbit on the International Space Station, where it will provide valuable but free look-down shots of crops throughout the g...
The University of North Dakota and NASA have teamed up to hire a new, better scout for farmers, as AgCam was shuttled into orbit on the International Space Station, where it will provide valuable but free look-down shots of crops throughout the growing season.
Common sense use
Once considered a tool primarily for precision farmers alone, satellite imagery has emerged as a surprisingly powerful asset in scouting areas of crop fields not visible from the road for disease, insect, moisture and weather stressors.
Doug Olsen, associate director and project manager for UND's Center for People and the Environment, says the farmers came up with this common sense use for satellite imagery.
"They get the image and they print it out and then they see, 'This part of my field is different than it was a month ago.' It's showing up a difference."
What was not visible from the highway has become visible, thanks to the images, and farmers are taking their printouts and heading out into their fields to inspect the problem firsthand.
AgCam is the product of several years' work done by more than 50 students and faculty members across several fields of study who designed, built and tested it.
It was delivered to the International Space Station Nov. 14 by the shuttle Endeavour. The Endeavour crew spent several days unloading it, and it was on the 10th anniversary of the space station that they loaded AgCam on board in foam-lined duffle bags.
There it will sit until March 20, when it will be unpacked and mounted to a special viewport on the station.
Using a single 300-millimeter lens, AgCam takes in the image and then shares it into two digital cameras, one with a red-band filter and the other a near-infrared filter. When combined, these two types of imagery are particularly adept at discerning actual plant health. Healthier crops absorb the red-band light and reflect the near-infrared light. Digital processing of the combination creates a pictorial field map that is highly accurate in reflection of plant health.
Once mounted, UND students will begin in-orbit testing.
"We're looking at one to two months to operate it and learn exactly how it works, taking images from orbit," Olsen says. "It is going to be much different than our test cases before."
They expect to be operational for farm access at the beginning of the spring growing season in May.
One of the real advantages of AgCam will be much more current images. Farmers will be able to make their requests about a week in advance and receive the processed imagery within two days of the images being taken.
Best of all, this space-based information channel is completely free.
"There's not going to be any cost," Olsen says. "The biggest issue will be that this is a research project, so when people register, we intend to make clear that we will want them to take the time to tell us why they are using the imagery and once they actually get it, whether it works for them or not, what they learned from it, what they didn't learn."