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Airbus brings satellite imaging down to Earth for sustainable farming

(8 July 2020 - Airbus) While farming may seem a world away from Airbus’ typical business activities, the company’s imaging capabilities with satellites is helping farmers increase crop yields and the quality of their harvest – all in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

Called Farmstar, this decision-support tool is the result of a joint effort that combines Airbus’ expertise in remote sensing imagery from satellites with the expertise of two French-based agronomic institutes: Arvalis-Institut du Végétal and Terres Inovia.

From seeding to harvest, Farmstar enables farming professionals to understand exactly how much fertiliser their crops need – providing comprehensive advice for wheat, barley, and rapeseed that is perfectly timed with the crop cycle.

This insight also helps farmers limit the use of fertiliser, which is consistent with the United Nations’ call to minimise nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from nitrogen fertilisers in farming. N2O is 200-times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and the United Nations anticipates the continued widespread use of nitrogen fertilisers could contribute to a doubling of N2O emissions by 2050.

Using the remote sensing imagery from Airbus, the Arvalis-Institut du Végétal develops agronomic models related to cereal crops; while Terres Inovia specialises in agronomic models for rapeseed. These agriculture institutes then develop corresponding recommendations – which are delivered to the customer for immediate implementation.

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Farmstar (courtesy: Airbus)

The Farmstar campaign

Specific guidance is focused on two areas – crop condition and input management – to help farming professionals manage their crops as efficiently as possible, providing economic, qualitative, regulatory and environmental benefits.

The Farmstar campaign lasts from September to June, and first begins with registration of all the plots to be monitored during the season (representing approximately 600,000 hectares). Then, over the months, satellite tasking plans are aligned with the various crop calendars in order to establish recommendations that fit key growth stages.

This represents a significant amount of labour, involving various teams from Airbus and the agronomic institutes, who work in close collaboration and within a synchronised organisation.

A top-notch delivery rate

The COVID-19 crisis started in France at the worst moment for this year’s Farmstar campaign, as mid-March corresponds to a peak production phase for wheat and barley recommendations. Due to the strict containment which had been put in place, all the teams were required to rapidly find ways of developing their advice remotely, in order to not miss the compelling deadlines of crop growth.

Within less than a week, the Airbus team – together with IT team support – set up the necessary chain to carry on delivering to farmers.

As a result of their exemplary efforts, the Farmstar team continued operating the service without any disruption, and successfully achieved a 99% delivery rate for the 2020 season.

Farmstar’s impressive performance amid COVID-19 was underscored by Marie-Jeanne Romelot of AXEREAL, a French-based customer: “When the lockdown started, we ‘leapt into the unknown’ together with the Farmstar team – literally overnight – without rehearsal, without development meetings, without operating instructions.”

Working together, a strategy was developed on the best way to deliver the Farmstar insight and guidance, ensuring that inputs from the various stakeholders were taken into account, Romelot explained.

She concluded: “We started two months late on sowing, and finished one week ahead of the final deliveries: a record! Congratulations to the Farmstar team for the work accomplished under these exceptional conditions!”

With 20 years of research and development – including nearly 15 years of marketing – Farmstar has earned its position as the French leader of nitrogen management tools – combining remote sensing and agronomics.