As we approach the end of 2020 it is gratifying to report that we are busy and active well beyond the confines of the UK. Despite the pandemic we have been working as far abroad as Australia, the Middle East, Africa, North and Latin America, and the Caribbean. Our technological innovation continues apace as we further extend the range and scope of our activities as one of the UK’s largest downstream Earth observation companies. We can look forward with optimism to the year ahead.
Monitoring Grassland by Satellite
Back in 2019 we were involved in a pilot project which investigated the potential of using satellite remote sensing to inform grassland management and predict grass yield in Wales. Things have moved on since then but the reasons for wanting to do this have not really changed. Grass is an essential crop in livestock production, and grazed grass is the cheapest and most efficient form of feed on a farm. When managed well, inputs and production costs can be reduced, boosting profit margins.
Measuring and monitoring grass growth enables the farmer to improve quality and maximise yield, and make decisions about stocking, grazing rotation and fertiliser applications. On smaller farms this is achieved with a rising plate meter which measures the growth and quantity of available ‘Dry Matter’ per hectare (DM/ha). It is a very labour intensive and time-consuming process so the attraction of using data from satellites which pass over the farms every 6 days is plain to see. In the pilot project Environment Systems developed an algorithm that can predict average grass cover (Kg DM/Ha) to develop a ‘hands free’ online tool to help farmers estimate average grass cover. The algorithm uses radar data, chosen for its ability to penetrate cloud cover and then provide consistent data readouts over time.
Since that time, we have proved that the technology is transferable to other regions. We have been using radar data in Colombia where persistent cloud cover prevents the use of more traditional optical satellites. The consistent source of data over time is helping farmers to manage their grazing grassland more efficiently.
We have also proved that the technology is scalable. We have been successfully monitoring grassland on a 50,000ha farm in New South Wales, Australia. These are exciting developments because we now know that our technology is both transferable and scalable which means that it can be applied to farms previously considered too large for routine use of a plate meter. Starting out in a small pilot project in Wales less than eighteen months ago we have now proved the efficacy of satellite data for monitoring grassland within a single field or across entire continents!
In November Caron Pugh one of Senior Consultants presented the findings of our research in the Precision Livestock Farming And Sensing Technology In Extensive Grassland Systems Webinar run by the BSAS (British Society of Animal Science). His presentation is now available on YouTube or you can access the whole webinar here.
East End Pond – Anguilla
East End Pond is a conservation area in Anguilla, the island’s only protected salt pond and an internationally recognised reserve for wetland bird species. Fed from a large catchment and supplemented by natural springs, the pond intermittently dries out in the summer, exposing mudflats attractive to shore birds. However, during heavy rainfall events, such as those associated with hurricanes, major flooding can take place. These damage the ecological balance of the pond, the surrounding vegetation, and inundate the main road and buildings within the local community. The pond has also been subject to siltation, decreasing the volume of water the pond can hold which can increase flood risk.
Working with the RSPB and Anguilla National Trust, Environment Systems has carried out a study to investigate the potential for flooding, and identify where and how nature-based solutions might mitigate the issue. Planting native vegetation throughout the wider catchment can help to reduce the infill of East End Pond caused by soil erosion. Reducing sediment infill will help maintain the water volume the pond can contain during flood events.
Using a variety of datasets, including digital surface models, hydrological data and rainfall data, Environment Systems created a number of different models such as flood extents and risk from erosion under different scenarios. In addition, we created a series of maps to illustrate how habitat management interventions (natural solutions such as increasing the capacity of vegetation) could improve ecological functioning with regard to flood prevention and mitigation of erosion. This work will inform wider wetland conservation action plans, and planting proposals in partnership with local experts and community organisations. This will help to improve the ecological status and climate-resilience of these important habitats. They will also be a useful tool for policy makers when new housing is proposed.
AGRI-SATT is an Innovate UK funded project led by algal growth specialists SuSeWi, based around their growing system which exploits natural seawater to produce food in deserts. The project aims to combine data from the growing system with satellite data to automate production and increase the nutritional quality of the food produced. Environment Systems is one of the project contractors providing Earth observation data acquisition, processing expertise and metrics.
The AGRI-SATT programme will combine high-resolution spatial and temporal satellite data with algal growth parameters to create an effective, scalable, protein and food production method on desert land. The pilot programme will take place in the Moroccan desert at SuSeWi’s third generation algal growing installation. The objective of this project is to develop a complete and sustainable system that can produce food and aquaculture feed at a price that competes with high value food and feed ingredients such as soy protein concentrate, fishmeal and pea-protein-isolate.
Currently, monitoring of in-pond photo-physiology is achieved using Single Turnover Active Fluorometer equipment to measure photosynthesis rates and compute productivity. However, this equipment is both expensive and difficult to scale. The alternative, and the main focus of this project, is spectrally corrected satellite data of the algae (6,000 data points per production pond) with ground-based operational information. Combined in a ‘Digital Twin’ this enables production to be observed, managed and adjusted to local environmental conditions on a daily basis from the UK.
This will secure the UK aquaculture and food supply chain while producing a high-value, highly-nutritional and sustainable food. The ultra-low carbon footprint food, powered by wind, will increase overall efficiency of the system and develop satellite, Internet of Things and sensor-based UK intellectual capital for export to producers worldwide.
Digital infrastructure is crucial to the agricultural and tourism sectors in rural Wales so concludes a recent report by economic research company Wavehill, commissioned by BT. At BT’s recent Smart Rural launch event Katie Medcalf our Environment Director gave a talk to explain how Environment Systems had benefited from enhanced digital connectivity. As an environmental and data consultancy the real game changer came in 2014 when our internet connection improved thanks to a 100 Mbs leased line. Before this we were much more restricted in what we could do with data. Satellite imagery and environmental datasets tend to be very large and working with a 3 Mbs connection, required an awful lot of planning and thought. The speed of our internet connection held us back organisationally in terms of our research and innovation as well as in supplying data to customers.
Our current 100 Mbs connection has really revolutionised both the structure of the company, our technology innovation and our client service offering. For example, we now offer cloud-based data services providing up-to-date, analysis ready satellite imagery across the UK, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, with the ability to make this available anywhere we are working in the world. This can give clients near real-time environmental data on productivity of the vegetation, crop performance, fire risk and other hazards.
We also offer highly detailed sub-field drone data to our agricultural clients. Here connectivity is key to moving this data rapidly from the field, back to the office for processing and then on to our clients.
Organisationally, we’ve gone from everyone working in the Aberystwyth office to having staff members based in Latin America and across the UK. In our recent response to COVID-19, we were able, in a matter of days, to transition the whole company from working from office space to working from home, whilst still providing everyone with access to our servers, without any loss of work continuity.
As a company we are keen to ‘keep ahead of the game’ so we are looking forward to improvements to the mobile network, especially in rural areas. We think the opportunities presented by digital innovation and connectivity are only just beginning with so many new ways of analysing, modelling and describing our environment which will enable us to continue to grow as a business.
The maps clearly show where the risks are highest, and therefore make it possible to inform a simple decision such as whether a site is suitable for a new development. The opportunity maps show where it might be useful to create new areas of coral, plus red or buttonwood mangrove and even where to establish dunes and the species that form and hold them together. They also illustrate the impact these measures will have if implemented.
Environment Systems Data Services
Nothing stands still for long, unless you let it, and software is a good case in point. It is always evolving, and the interdependencies can often lead to technical debt. With this in mind our development team recently carried out a significant upgrade to Environment Systems Data Services. Firstly, we carried out a wholesale refresh of European Space Agency software, critical to accessing Sentinel satellite data. We have also implemented some ‘under the hood,’ so to speak, modifications to admin and maintenance routines ‘containerising’ our application and moving towards a microservices style architecture. This reduces maintenance ops, in some cases, from hours to minutes. We have also spruced up our data pulling routines which means we can ensure greater continuity by being able to pull data from multiple sources. Lastly, we made it easier for our project managers to select their data zones and date ranges without reference to a developer. Suffice to say, better, faster and more secure.
Please go and take a look to find out more.
Caron who originally joined us in 2011, has recently been promoted to Senior Remote Sensing Consultant. Our resident large scale agricultural crop performance and drone data expert, Caron has a key role leading many of our efforts in commercial applications in agriculture.