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Field Notes: Using satellite to scale up

After being tested in research fields during the 2019-2021 growing seasons, Sentinel’s trademarked N-Time™ Fertigation Management System was made commercially available for the first time this year. Our flagship software is currently being utilized on dozens of farming operations across Nebraska and Kansas. In this three-part series, Field Notes, we’ll examine how N-Time™ is currently helping producers management confidently and profit sustainably.

In our second blog of the series, we’ll illuminate how Sentinel has used satellite imagery to scale up and provide producers with real-time fertigation scheduling recommendations based on the needs of their crops.

An image taken from satellite of a field, which has been broken up into red and green plots.
Satellite images likes this are analyzed by our N-Time™ software to give farmers a comprehensive overhead view of their fields and potential nitrogen deficiencies within their crops.

The image is so blurry that without an explanation or context it’s impossible to make out what it is. An abstract painting of a boomerang in mid-flight wouldn’t be a bad guess.

Taken on August 14, 1959, the grainy black and white photo is a picture of the earth captured from the Explorer 6 satellite. While an image of earth from space had been captured more than a decade before, the photo taken by Explorer 6 is the first image of the earth take by satellite. The Explorer 6, launched atop a rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, was orbiting Mexico when it snapped the image. The indistinguishable white shape in the photo isn’t a boomerang at all — it’s the North Central Pacific Ocean.

A blurry white image on a black background. The photo was taken by the Explorer 6 satellite from space.
The photo captured by the Explorer 6 satellite of the Pacific Ocean on August 14, 1959. Photo from NASA, Explorer VI satellite, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Satellite imagery has improved significantly in the six decades since. And for that, Sentinel Fertigation is grateful. Satellite imagery is at the core of how we’re able to deliver data-driven fertigation scheduling recommendations to producers, but it hasn’t always been that way.

When our CEO & Founder Jackson Stansell was developing the foundation for our fertigation management system as a master’s student at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, he and others used drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), to capture aerial images of fields. The process of launching and piloting drones meant long, sweaty days under the scorching Nebraska summer sun.

Even then, Jackson knew that satellite imagery would be the key to scaling up the fertigation management software to help more farmers efficiently manage their nitrogen fertilizer use.

“With satellite imagery, we’re able to scale over a lot more acres because it doesn’t require any manpower. We can contract with a commercial provider and purchase imagery on a per-area basis,” he said. “That’s really eliminated a lot of the labor constraints and time constraints that UAV imagery placed on our ability to operate.”

This growing season, Sentinel is relying on satellite imagery provided by Planet and Airbus. The two companies — both leaders of their fields — provide different types of imagery that complement each other well.

“We’re really at the point where we can see individual crop rows with this [Pleiades Neo] data. And that’s pretty incredible.” - Jackson Stansell, Sentinel's Founder & CEO

The key differences between them are image resolution and data frequency. Planet supplies 8-band multispectral images from its PlanetScope constellation on an almost daily basis, sometimes multiple times over the course of 24 hours.

“We’re getting it very frequently so we can constantly monitor how the crop is changing,” Jackson said.

Airbus delivers imagery from its new Pleiades Neo constellation on an approximately weekly basis. However, Airbus supplies a 6-band multispectral image set at 30 centimeters per pixel. The more pixels you have per centimeter, the sharper the photo will be. “We’re really at the point where we can see individual crop rows with this data,” Jackson said. “And that’s pretty incredible.”

Gathering satellite imagery is much more efficient than having to fly individual drones over fields, but it isn’t without its challenges. The biggest may be clouds, which can obscure the satellite’s view of a field. Sentinel Fertigation is currently working to build another level of redundancy for those infrequent times when cloud coverage is an obstacle for multiple days at a time.

Having access to high-quality imagery is helpful to producers, but it only goes so far. In fact, imagery has been an available tool in agriculture for some time. That doesn’t mean it’s always been implemented in an effective way.

“Imagery is great. It helps you see your field from a bird’s eye view,” Jackson said. “But imagery in agriculture has been around for a long time and people have had a hard time finding utility for imagery because there hasn’t necessarily been a decision or analytic built on it to make it actionable.”

“We’re taking imagery a step further.” - Jackson Stansell, Sentinel's Founder & CEO

Sentinel’s N-Time™ Fertigation Management System pairs imagery with analytics and action.

Taking the soil, topography and features of individual fields into account, our software continuously analyzes satellite imagery to quantify a crops’ nitrogen needs. From there, Sentinel’s system informs a producer of the fertilizer application action they need to take and how they can take that action given the irrigation infrastructure on their farming operation.

As Jackson says, “We’re taking imagery a step further.”

For a more in-depth explanation of how N-Time™ uses imagery to deliver data-driven fertigation recommendations, check out this blog.

In the third installment of the Field Notes blog series, we’ll discuss the ways our N-Time™ system has been using imagery to deliver results this growing season.

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