Predicting crops, predicting how fires spread – all from 800 km above the earth

Water or no water is equivalent to success and failure in agriculture. Understanding soil moisture will be one of the key technologies for future growth and preventing disasters. Satellites provide free and precise data already – but only very few people are able to convert this information into valuable assessments for growers. We talked to one company that is able to see through the clouds and predict crop performance.


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The Clipper: Please tell us about your company and what you are doing.

Robbert Mica: We are VanderSat, an earth observation company. We have a proprietary method well we provide three data sets for the whole world on 100 by hundred meters resolution for soil moisture – the amount of water in the soil, the land surface temperature and VOD, which is the amount of water in the crop. These three services are currently operational – and we are working on cloud-free NDVI.  NDVI is the holy grail for agriculture and satellites. [We will explain below what NDVI is]. Cloud cover it is a huge issue for this method. We have solved this problem we will go online with cloud-free NDVI in the coming season.

The Clipper: You are claiming that you can see water better than anyone else. Why and how? 

Robbert Mica: I need to give you some background on this. The satellite is 800 km away froYou’rem The earth.. it senses certain transmissivity of the soil.  the transmissivity changes with the amount of water in the soil. That’s what we detect. And we can detect that straight through the crop. The data in itself is very cool and very operational but you need to use the data within the application. We partner with the biggest agricultural insurance companies and crop protection companies in the world. then we build applications based on our data.  

The Clipper: Does that mean we do not need soil moisture sensors in the future? No drones that detect water?

Robbert Mica: We live in interesting times and as we come from science we strongly believe that still a lot of research is needed to figure it out. Every crop and every location behaves differently. When we get approached by an almond grower we would build the application together with the grower or a grower organization. The grower shares data from his spraying or irrigation protocols and we build the application in combination with our data. 

The Clipper: And now for something completely different: Bushfires in Australia are threatening plantations. If you can tell us about soil moisture can you also tell us about the risk of fires? 

Robbert Mica: We already work for the Dutch Firefighters. We know about the soil moisture and the water in crops or forests. We also have very precise vegetation maps. If the firefighters know what grows where and what the amount of water in the vegetation is they can predict very well how the fire will spread. Some things tend to burn better than other things. We are working with the big reinsurers to assess the damage after a fire. 

The Clipper: What should people in the nut industry do to benefit from the data available?

Robbert Mica: My recommendation to growers of almonds, pistachios but also other crops is: Get involved in building these applications. It’s the future. Don’t wait for it to come to you, we need to know the problems in order to solve them. Considering the fact that we see the soil and the waters inside the soil we also see the drydown. You can imagine that sand dries down very fast, clay does not. We see these characteristics everywhere in the world, so we are building a big soil map. 

The Clipper: Sometimes I find it scary that you might gather data about plantations that the farmers do not have access to. You are working for reinsurers or big agriculture companies or crop protection companies that eventually know more about an orchard than the farmer who owns it. What do you predict for the future?

Robbert Mica: We have a project in Kazakhstan with SwissRe – and the data is also available for the farmers. The data that their insurance is based on is exactly the same data they can access through the internet – they can actually check the soil moisture in their fields. 

The Clipper: But a farmer might not get a loan in the future or an insurance because these companies know there is a problem that the farmer does not even know about. 

Yes, there is a lot of talk about who owns that data and the companies who are using the data are very aware of that. 

What is NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index)?

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) quantifies vegetation by measuring the difference between near-infrared (which vegetation strongly reflects) and red light (which vegetation absorbs). NDVI always ranges from -1 to +1. But there isn’t a distinct boundary for each type of land cover. For example, when you have negative values, it’s highly likely that it’s water. On the other hand, if you have a NDVI value close to +1, there’s a high possibility that it’s dense green leaves.

But when NDVI is close to zero, there isn’t green leaves and it could even be an urbanized area. Healthy vegetation (chlorophyll) reflects more near-infrared (NIR) and green light compared to other wavelengths. But it absorbs more red and blue light. This is why our eyes see vegetation as the color green. If you could see near-infrared, then it would be strong for vegetation too. Satellite sensors like Landsat and Sentinel-2 both have the necessary bands with NIR and red. 

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