Late frost, a dry spring, acidic soil … Many factors can interrupt agricultural processes. Remote sensing supports traditional agricultural information with data from satellite images, providing more insight into the agricultural system.

Remote sensing is a technique for collecting data through observation from a distance. VITO uses satellite and other sensor images in research projects for various sectors. “The latest generation of satellites delivers very detailed images,” says Anne Gobin of VITO. “The Sentinel satellites of the European earth observation programme Copernicus provide us with global data on a daily basis. For more flexibility and higher resolution, we use drone images. We process all of this data into useful information with which we offer various services.”

Smart farming

Remote sensing is used, among other things, to study agricultural processes and make them more efficient.

Anne Gobin: Smart farming combines classic agricultural information, such as soil and growth data, with sensor measurements and satellite images. This allows us to monitor crop development during the growing season.  From these data we can, for example, determine whether the crop is growing optimally and whether its management can be fine-tuned. This is valuable information for a farmer.

Remote sensing is also used to make crops more resilient to climate change. The ‘greenness index’ of a plot is determined based on satellite images: does it match the expected situation? Climate risks such as a period of drought or flooding can lead to crops falling behind. “In addition, we also use remote sensing to protect the landscape,” says Anne Gobin. “With satellite imagery, for example, we can monitor whether the function of fields changes, or retain valuable elements such as tree rows and hedges. Using this information, policymakers can take targeted measures.”

Expanding services

As the quality of the satellite images continues to increase, remote sensing is being applied on an ever larger scale. The technology fits perfectly into the big data story, which links together as much data as possible. VITO wants to expand its services in the coming years. “On the one hand, more and more commercial applications are emerging from our research. Think of the growing number of companies that offer agricultural monitoring. They often rely on drones, but a synergy with satellite images is certainly possible,” says Anne Gobin. “On the other hand, there are also opportunities to enter into public-private partnerships. Satellite images can contribute a lot to policy support research. Even if this remains something for the future: we first have to carefully examine the data processing chain so that we don’t make promises we can’t meet. When you are able to link statistics and data to satellite images, this does not always mean that you can sketch a coherent story. But the input of a spatial component often gives added value.”

In Voeren, a picturesque municipality near Tongeren, VITO uses remote sensing to protect the landscape. Voeren is proud of its unique hedgerow landscape. The region attracts thousands of visitors each year who walk among the fields and rows of trees. But bushes, hedges and solitary trees are increasingly being cut down to create larger and easily workable fields. Historic grasslands have to make way for highly productive grasslands for cattle breeding.