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Can Affordable Satellites For Farmers Help Solve The Food Crisis?

As satellites become smaller and cheaper, they can help farmers get more precise data and squeeze more productivity from their lands.

Can Affordable Satellites For Farmers Help Solve The Food Crisis?
[Photos: NASA]

Traditional satellites are huge, weighing about three tons, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But, as with so many other things, the technology is being miniaturized and made reasonably affordable–at least, affordable enough that a handful of startups, including Skybox (recently acquired by Google), Planet Labs, and now Satellogic, are launching hundreds of breadbox-sized satellites into space. And these satellites could change entire industries.

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Emiliano Kargieman, the founder and CEO of Satellogic, came up with the idea for his company while attending Singularity University about five years ago. His vision: increasing agricultural productivity through more frequent satellite monitoring–in other words, solving the food crisis from space.


“Our vision is to be able to monitor every acre of arable land in the world every day. We can look at different things that might be interesting to precision farmers, like the nitrogen uptake of plants, water stress of plants, and spread of diseases in the crops,” he says. “It’s information that will be useful for increasing crop yields and understanding where fertilizer will be needed.”

Kargieman believes that tiny satellites have the potential to bring agriculture even further into the realm of data science, collecting countless data points everyday for farmers to use. In the past, farmers using satellite data would have to wait up to four weeks for commercial and government satellites to update their imagery.

Other satellite startups, along with larger players like Satshot and GEOSYS, have also started offering images on a more regular basis to agricultural customers.

Of course, Satellogic will make a lot more money if it opens itself up to other industries as well. The startup’s other big focus is the oil and gas industry, which is interested in satellite technology for monitoring pipelines and oil spills at a fraction of the cost of what they currently pay.

The startup has so far launched three prototype satellites, which are about the size and shape of a desktop computer and cost less than $1 million apiece. In the next few years, the company plans to launch what Kargieman calls a “constellation of satellites that can see anywhere on the planet in a couple hours.”

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The satellites have an image resolution of one meter. That means they can’t zoom in on individual people but can get close enough to count cars without identifying them. Not that Satellogic’s customers will be scanning the satellite images.

“We work with them on how to automatically process those images, to make them easier to understand,” says Kargieman.

Eventually Kargieman imagines that constantly updated satellite imagery will be accessible to the general public, too. “We will see things going on in different parts of the planet on a day by day basis, from monitoring social conflict to gaming based on space data,” he says. “It will change the way we relate to the planet.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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