David E.

Steitz Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1730)

November 5, 1999

Steve Roy Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL (Phone: 256/544-0034) RELEASE: 99-130 NASA PROVIDES 21st CENTURY SOLUTIONS TO 1999 DROUGHT As many drought-stricken farms in America limp through the last harvest of the 20th century, researchers are using remote sensing technology developed for the space program to help improve crop management and increase profitability. The availability of inexpensive agricultural products for consumers in the next century could depend on such capabilities -potentially meaning the difference between "boom" and "bust" for American farmers in the new millennium. At the Global Hydrology and Climate Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, NASA scientists are collaborating with university researchers to apply remote sensing technology to a sophisticated agricultural technique called precision farming. In precision farming, growers break fields down into regions, or "cells," analyzing growth characteristics of each cell and improving crop health and yield by applying precise amounts of seed, fertilizer and pesticides as needed. Traditionally, farmers have lacked the ability to make those close analyses of specific cells. When they fertilized their crops, they simply spread it uniformly across the entire field. "Now, using remote sensing feedback, we can tailor that input more precisely," says Doug Rickman, lead researcher for the Global Hydrology and Climate Center. Such precise crop maintenance benefits society in another way: "Excess nitrogen can leak into groundwater," says Paul Mask, professor of agronomy at Auburn University in Auburn, AL. "Other fertilizers can increase pollution problems, threatening public health. By adding only the amount of fertilizer the land and the crop can effectively use, we can reduce such problems."

"We can point to areas that will always have low yield," adds Mask. "If the maximum capability of an area is 50 bushels an acre, there is no need to fertilize for 120 bushels. It does no good." "The true potential is not simply improving yield," Rickman agrees. "It's improving stewardship of the land." Remote sensing is the gathering of data for analysis by instruments that are not in physical contact with the objects of investigation; in modern parlance, the term commonly refers to the gathering of data via planes or orbiting satellites. Remote sensing is used to measure electromagnetic radiation, including the thermal energy that is reflected or emitted in varying degrees by all natural and synthetic objects, such as crops. That makes remote sensing ideal for Rickman's research. "We can fly over an area and precisely map its plant quality and soil makeup -- including estimation of mineral variation and organic carbon content -- in two-meter increments," he says. "Farmers have sought this ability for 30 years." When NASA began studying precision agriculture techniques in the 1970s, the practice was hampered by researchers' inability to accomplish such precise mapping. Measuring yield was also inconvenient, time-consuming and often imprecise. "To measure a single field of 80 to 100 acres, you might take six soil samples from different parts of the field, send them to a lab, and wait days or weeks for the results," Rickman says. "And six samples don't give you a very accurate measure anyway -- soil quality can vary dramatically all across that area." The advent of global positioning systems and remote sensing technology changed all that. "Now farmers can intelligently control their systems," Rickman says, "before they ever plant a seed." "This is applied research," says Dr. J.M. Wersinger of Auburn University, the project coordinator. "We could have done our experiments in an antiseptic laboratory environment, but we understood from the beginning that we needed to involve real farmers in the program. They are full partners in this endeavor."

NASA and its partners recognize that the research is still in its infancy. Rickman and his colleagues are still exploring "the breadth of potential understanding yet to be gained from the new technology," he says. "With current technology, nations can show the estimated yield of Kansas or Kazakhstan," Rickman says. "But that doesn't help the individual farmer. We're seeking to provide a system that will help farmers improve the efficiency of their fields and their crop management techniques. In the end, that will benefit everyone." - end -