Agriculture and space. The ground and the sky. One of the most ancient human activities paired with our dreams for the future.
While agriculture and space at first may not appear to have much in common, space-based technologies are helping us grow food and monitor crops more efficiently. As the population grows, water becomes precious, and the climate becomes more variable, space-based technologies will be critical in helping us solve our greatest challenges here on Earth.
Here are three such technologies that are changing the way we grow food.
1. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) helps grow more food with fewer resources.
As more people move into urban centers and the need to conserve water and energy increases, we need new ways to grow food with fewer resources, closer to the people who consume it. We also need ways to cultivate healthy crops in an increasingly volatile climate.
Thanks to decades of research by NASA, we don’t have to start from scratch. The need to grow fresh food, generate oxygen and promote astronaut well-being in space led NASA to develop indoor farming techniques that are now taking root on Earth.
Growing food in a space station or spacecraft demands specialized, fully contained systems that can reuse a limited water supply and don’t require soil or sunlight. This tall order led NASA to build the first vertical farm in the U.S.—and plant the seeds for today’s Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) sector.
CEA creates and maintains ideal growing conditions for crops within a closed structure. Plants are fed a precise mixture of nutrients and receive the optimal duration and intensity of LED lighting. Environmental controls keep the temperature and humidity at ideal levels for the particular crop. There is no threat of drought or pests. Crops can be grown in vertical stacks, making the most of every square inch and acre.
Today, private companies are taking NASA’s vertical farm structure to new heights. The vertical farming market is projected to reach $7.3 billion by 2025, even without the federal subsidies conventional farms receive. Thus far, the industry has mainly focused on fast-growing, high-demand leafy greens that help companies turn a profit. However, we may reach a time when we analyze all crops to decide if they are best grown indoors or out.
CEA is a growing industry ripe with opportunity. NASA continues to develop CAE techniques and makes patents available for commercialization. One example is the Veggie Plant Growth System, available through the NASA Technology Transfer Program. It is a suite of technologies used to plant, feed and harvest plants in microgravity with minimal human intervention. Nutrients are delivered directly to the plant roots via capillary action. This system could have applications on Earth for vertical farming and green walls.
|If you are interested in NASA’s tech transfer program, Space Commerce Institute has experts in this area who can help. Visit the Consulting Services page for details.
2. Earth observing data helps farmers see the future.
For millennia, farmers have put seeds into the ground with the faith that the rains would come and their crops would grow. Unpredictability comes with the profession.
However, space technology is now helping farmers, scientists, resource managers and policymakers see into the future—and plan ahead.
Satellite programs such as Landsat have been used for decades to gather remote sensing data and monitor cropland from space. Now, Earth observation data is combined with high-end computer modeling to:
- Remotely monitor crop development and health
- Plan the timing and amount of irrigation needed based on predicted rainfall and soil moisture
- Predict water shortages, droughts and floods
- Spot the early signs of a struggling crop
- Identify problem areas in a field
- Estimate crop yields
- Create custom irrigation and fertilizer recommendations
The benefits extend far beyond individual farms and economic factors. This data and analysis can help predict the agricultural output of entire regions, so the effects of food shortages can be mitigated before people go hungry. For example, steps can be taken early to transport food to regions predicted to have a major crop failure. Farmers in areas predicted to experience drought may be able to choose a more drought-resistant crop or adjust irrigation patterns.
NASA’s Harvest program works to enable and advance the adoption of satellite Earth observation data to benefit food security, agriculture and human and environmental resiliency. NASA collaborates with universities, researchers, private companies and government agencies to create tools and programs that turn Earth observation data into actionable information farmers can use to make decisions on their farms.
The overall Satellite Earth Observation Market, which includes agriculture as well as other sectors, is projected to reach $7.88 billion by 2030 according to Straits Research.
Crop Monitoring Market with Covid-19 Impact Analysis, by Offering (Hardware, Software, Services), Technology (Sensing & Imagery, VRT), Application (Field Mapping, Soil Monitoring, Crop Scouting), Farm Size, Region – Global Forecast to 2025
3. GNSS helps make farming more precise and efficient.
Global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) are satellite constellations that provide positioning, navigation and timing services here on Earth. Examples include GPS (United States), Galileo (European Union) and BeiDou (China).
GNSS-enabled programs and applications are increasingly used today to make farming more efficient. Agricultural machinery equipped with onboard navigation can be programmed to run on optimal routes—distributing seeds, fertilizer or pesticides without overlapping or skipping. This helps farmers make the most of their time while significantly reducing fuel consumption. Farmers can even upload field maps and only apply fertilizer and pesticides to areas that need them.
Other applications include crop monitoring, livestock tracking and auto-guidance for steering. The overall Crop Monitoring Market, which includes remote sensing systems and imagery, AI and robotics, variable rate technology (VRT) and more, is projected to reach $4.4 billion by 2025.
If you’re interested in growing into or within the space agriculture industry, Space Commerce Institute can help.
There are numerous opportunities to apply space-based technologies to improve agricultural practices. If you are interested in this field as a career, are considering starting a business, or currently have a business in this area and want to grow, Space Commerce Institute has resources for you. Explore our courses and consulting services now.