Growing rice with help from satellites and smart technology
Farmers and agricultural authorities are now able to efficiently monitor rice fields, forecast future yields and identify potential threats to harvests of the world's most important staple crop thanks to cutting-edge technologies developed by an EU-funded project.
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Working with farmers in the EUs largest rice-producing countries, researchers from the ERMES project have deployed services using Earth observation, meteorological and locally sourced data to provide rice growers with detailed information about the status of their fields.
The system which also enables public authorities to more efficiently monitor regional production has been tested in Italy, Spain and Greece, which account for 85 % of Europes total rice production, and could be extended to Asia and Africa where rice is by far the most important food resource.
We focused on producing high-quality, near real-time data services and digital maps aimed at allowing public authorities to perform regional-level crop monitoring activities in a more efficient way and provide local farmers with detailed information concerning the status of their fields for precision agricultural applications, says ERMES project coordinator Mirco Boschetti of CNR-IREA in Italy. These services can mitigate the risk of crop diseases and support sustainable practices that reduce the environmental impact of farming rice and other crops.
One ERMES application, the Local Rice Service, is providing farmers and insurers with crucial information on crop variability within fields, as well as risk alerts and damage assessment at individual farms. The service also helps farmers determine the most suitable periods and locations for fertiliser and pesticide application. This enables a fine-tuned approach to the use of agricultural chemicals that will minimise the risk of harm to the environment and reduce production costs, increasing efficiency and competitiveness.
The need for nitrogen fertilisation is a major expense in rice production, typically accounting for 15 to 30 % of total production costs, Boschetti says. Proper management of nitrogen fertilisation and pesticide use is also essential to avoid negative environmental impacts and to help farmers comply with European agricultural and food safety policies focused on promoting more environmentally friendly and safe farming practices.
The ERMES project also addressed the needs of public administrations, particularly regional authorities, to support their role in monitoring agricultural production.
The Regional Rice Service collates satellite images with crowd-sourced information from farms to produce detailed online maps of production, including giving agricultural inspectors and farmers the ability to geo-tag and annotate photos of crops.
In Italys Lombardy region, for example, this data is currently being used to generate fungus risk bulletins for the agricultural industry in order to support a more rational and careful use of pesticides.
At the regional scale, ERMES services have been used both as a platform to perform expert-based crop monitoring and as the basis for producing customised added-value information, such as biotic risk and yield forecast bulletins, as well as near real-time flooding maps, Boschetti says. At a local level, farmers in Italy and Greece have created maps for nitrogen fertilisation plans, which were then used to manage their fields, enabling both economic savings and more environmentally friendly management.
At the cutting edge
The services use a number of cutting-edge technologies, especially Earth observation data from the European Space Agencys Copernicus programme that includes high-resolution imagery from the advanced Sentinel SAR satellites. This is integrated with crop modelling information, meteorological data and in situ observations utilising automated data processing and data integration technologies. The results can be visualised and analysed via interactive online portals and mobile apps, enabling rapid and easy access to the information in the field.
The ERMES system is currently being further developed through several follow-up projects, including a European Regional Development initiative to support precision farming and tests of IT solutions and remote sensing products by Italys largest agricultural group, Bonifiche Ferraresi. Italian insurers, meanwhile, are aiming to include ERMES data in operational workflows for crop monitoring and damage assessment.
Beyond Europe, the solutions are also being put into practice in South East Asia as part of the RIICE initiative, a public-private project aimed at utilising satellite technologies to boost food security and mitigate crop losses aggravated by climate change.