Going for Growth

This satellite may change farming forever

Europe's multi-billion dollar earth-monitoring program could be a game changer for food production, experts say.

The European Space Agency (ESA) this week launched Sentinel-2A — a satellite armed with technology that will more accurately forecast crop failures from space.

"Sentinel-2A can be a game changer in some areas," Matthieu Hyrien, COO of agricultural technologies firm Geosys, told CNBC. It will help cover areas that are not served by commercial satellites or where demand isn't strong enough to support the tech costs upfront, he said.

A rocket carrying the Sentinel-2A lifts off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on June 23, 2015.
ESA–M. Pedoussaut, 2015

As part of the European Union (EU)'s 8 billion euro ($8.9 billion) environmental monitoring scheme – called Copernicus -- all of the satellite's data will be publicly available within three to four hours, Sentinel-2 Mission Manager Bianca Hoersch told CNBC.

It's a service that could be useful to both private businesses and universities.

"Small-to-medium-sized enterprises will be able to take the data and compete in business," Hoersch said. "For example, there's a whole market in precision farming."

The industry uses aerial imagery, GPS-guided grids and statistical information to pinpoint sections of farmland that need tending to, ultimately helping limit the nutrients used across the entire plot.

Satellite imagery from Sentinel-2A could be combined with on-the-ground knowledge to not only improve harvests, but more accurately measure fertilization and irrigation needs. It will also differentiate between crop types and their growth levels and use infared tools to determine whether plants are under water-stress far earlier, Hoersch said.

Sentinel-2A at IABG’s facilities in Ottobrunn, Germany in February 2015, before being packed up and shipped to French Guiana for launch.
ESA–S. Corvaja, 2015

"This is one of the most efficient satellites in terms of capacity," she added.

The satellite will orbit the earth every 90 minutes and cover every landmass every 10 days — which currently takes most satellites 15-30 days, Hoersch said. A one-hour flight of the satellite will cover a swath of 290 kilometers (180 miles) - about the length of Norway or Sweden.

Furthermore, next year's new Sentinel-2B will be able to cover the whole earth in under five days. This will provide greater insight into how crops are growing over shorter periods, Hoersch explained.

Despite being launched by the EU, data from Sentinel-2A "will be most useful in countries outside of the U.S. and Western Europe," Hyrien said, "where the precision agriculture market is not as mature and where commercial satellites are not tasked today."

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Importers may be poised for the greatest benefit, Hamish Smith, a commodities economist at Capital Economics, told CNBC by email. Crop-loss forecasts could give governments more time to arrange alternative sources of imports to ensure sufficient supplies.

But exporters like Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, North Africa and China also stand to gain, especially those looking for efficiencies that will boost investment in agriculture, Hyrian said.

"Sentinel-2A will provide more information, more wavelengths than existing satellites, that will help delivering higher value insights if used with adapted technologies and expertise, he said.

Still, it may be too soon for investors to get excited.

"It will likely not allow getting enough acquisition frequency to change the way soft commodities are traded." Hyrien added.

Sentinel 2A will transmit its first images next week, and be fully operational in 3 months' time.