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Using drones and satellites to improve farm management

The Spatial Analysis unit in Teagasc use Earth Observation technology to help understand the status of Irish agriculture and develop tools to allow farmers to better manage their farms, writes Stuart Green, Teagasc Research Officer.

In Teagasc, we use earth observation technology to help us understand the status of Irish agriculture and develop tools to allow farmers to better manage their farms. Earth observation is a branch of remote sensing, using technology like satellites and drones to measure see what’s going on in Ireland.

Satellites

The satellites we use are optical (like orbiting digital cameras) and radar (which broadcast microwaves and measure how they bounce back). We can use these satellites to characterise the landscape, telling us what type of land-cover we have.

They are particularly good at mapping habitats and nature. Radar and a similar technology, lidar (which uses lasers), allow us to understand the 3D world we live in, measuring the shape of the earth and objects like hedgerows.

Optical satellites

The optical satellites work very well in helping understand the current status of field or farm and see how it changes or compares to the past. For grassland production, which is so important in Ireland, in some cases daily observations by satellites mean we can see the grass grow.

Using these images with artificial intelligence means we very reliably measure, from space the amount of grass growing in a field and the whole farm. Satellites are also very useful in seeing variation across the country at any one time to understand the carried impacts of droughts or floods.

Satellite images

Across a wider landscape, we can use the historical record of satellite images (going back to the 1970s) to see how current conditions compare to normal or we can see how some land-use, like forestry, have changed over time.

Drones

One problem with using earth observation in Ireland is that it’s so often cloudy. Radar satellites overcome this because they can “see” through clouds but the information they relay can be difficult to interpret and be a little limited.

For Ireland and Irish agriculture, drones offer the solution. Modern drones are easy to fly, easy to program and can carry many different types of sensors. Drones are used to map farms to help farm planning and design, monitor crop and grass growth (especially to detect disease within a field) and they can even see underground, using thermal cameras.

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