Vik Vandecaveye, Chairman of CEMA Digital Agriculture working group and CNH Industrial Connected Services Industry Relations

Over the last decade significant progress has been done by the European Union to implement a reliable Earth observation system, under the EU Copernicus Programme, together with the development of the first civilian Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) GALILEO, that provides positioning and timing services and the tool EGNOS that corrects the signal precise down to a few centimetres.

Numerous applications are possible today supported by Galileo’s technology. Data and services have become indispensable in our daily lives, such as rescue searches, smart phones, farming, plane navigation or connected cars. 

The focus today is on how satellite based technologies can improve farming practices and farmers’ decisions in European agriculture.


1. What are the technology applications where Global Positioning Systems, such as Galileo & EGNOS, can have a bigger impact in agriculture?

Nowadays, satellites are at the core of precision farming. Thanks to satellites we have accurate geolocation that allows automated vehicle guidance on the fields i.e. tractors and implements or combine harvesters. Besides, satellites images help providing mapping for yields and other crop and field measurements (e.g. soil compaction, chlorophyll content). Once the geo-located information collected by the satellites is analysed and processed,  it can be used to automate the farming equipment using variable rate applications to better apply seeds, fertilizers, pesticides according to specific plants’ or soil needs. So, without satellites, basically all advanced farming practices fall apart.

In general, the adoption of satellite technologies in Europe is growing. Most equipment of a certain size (e.g. tractors with more than around 150 HP) is by default equipped with guidance solutions, but variable rate applications certainly have not peaked yet.

Secondly, we have the remote sensing capabilities of the satellites, which help to analyse the conditions in the field (water needs, erosion conditions, fertilization needs) using different technologies like visual or multi-spectral inspection. This is an area that will grow in the coming years, combined with the development of more user-friendly technologies that translate raw data into meaningful information for farmers.

And thirdly, satellites also provide solutions for machine-to-machine communication or for real-time information of farms operations. This is helpful for telematics in remote areas, but still quite an expensive technology. But also novel communication technologies like Sat4M2M bring data from IoT field sensors to the office, avoiding dependence on the VVandecaveyecoverage of local LPWAN base stations.


2. In the past agricultural machinery was relying on US or Russian GPS. How is the EU agricultural machinery industry adapting to the European GNSS?

For navigation services the agricultural machinery industry has historically relied on foreign signals, but today the European signals offer a strategic advantage and are slightly more accurate. New equipment on the market is more and more compliant with the new signals, and the expectation is that Galileo will be de-facto supported in near future.


3. Are EU farmers willing to take on-board the applications of these technologies?

Farmers are interested in the applications they can benefit from using this kind of technology. This said, the fact that more signals are available, focusing in European landscape, can only mean that solutions are more reliable and this increases the value from satellites' technologies.

In my view, benefits of using satellite images are higher than other remote sensing solutions. Satellite-based images are not as detailed as drones' images, nevertheless they are much more convenient for farming practices. In 80% of the cases satellite images are perfectly fine to be used.

Besides, both images’ resolution and frequency of satellites’ passes are improving. Latest generation images allow to distinguish even individual plants and the combination with ground sensor and other data sources can solve the issue with cloudy skies. In a nutshell, satellite images are a technology to watch out for!


4. What do farmers need to make use of satellite based images and the intelligence that comes along (parcels limits, soils quality or vegetation cover)?

Despite all promising potential, satellite imaging is still a bit of an exotic tool for the average farmer. There are many factors contributing to this, especially regarding raw satellite imaging. Data is not easily accessible and usable.

Today, raw satellite images are usually used by larger farms, due to their large field sizes. In the end, it is another information source that needs to be interpreted, so there is a need to have algorithms which can decode the exact knowledge from the data before it becomes usable. The way most farmers will use satellite data is included with agronomic services. More and more agronomic advice are moving to ICT supported systems, running in the cloud based on automated analyses. This automatic advice can run as stand-alone application or be included in Farm Management Information System FMIS solutions.


5. Could information from satellite images facilitate compliance with CAP requirements ? How to maintain anonymity since farming remains a private business? Is there any plan the EU Code of Conduct on agricultural data-sharing could extend its scope to provide guidance on this situation?

Satellite imaging holds potential for improving agricultural practices, and will benefit both the farming community as well as the society and the environment.

On the executional farming level there is the opportunity to use satellite images for streamlining reporting. It can be a missing key for further automating the digitised reporting process, which will be a relief for many farmers. This should improve response times resulting in faster payments.

But we cannot deny that satellites watching us from the sky may create a fear for a big brother. Therefore, it is very important that the technology is used for the benefits only, and where it adds value. This means the use of satellite images for reporting should be optional, rewarded, and offer the possibilities to apply corrections where automatic data processing may cause misinterpretation.

The EU Code of Conduct on agricultural data-sharing states that in case data is captured on a farm, there will be an agreement in place to arrange the data access rights. It is clear that satellite imaging poses a challenge that needs to be discussed with the industry organisations. It is our sincere hope that processing satellite data will respect the rights of farmers and other people involved.