The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 004

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 004 - RADARSAT Constellation Mission - Agriculture from space

Learn about the Radarsat Constellation Mission, the type of data that flows from it, its applications in agriculture and how it is used by environmental stewards to work with farmers.

In this episode we speak to Dr. Andrew Davidson, manager Earth Observation at AAFC and Jacqui Empson Laporte, Environmental Specialist, from OMAFRA.


Sara Boivin-Chabot: Welcome to The First Sixteen. My name is Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk Finken: And I'm Kirk Finken. We are your -- soon to become – favourite public servants.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: I hope you're ready to have your brains launched into space.

Kirk Finken: Yeah, I got my helmet on.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: You look good in a helmet.

Kirk Finken: I don’t know how to take that…

So, you've heard about using satellite imagery and data in a variety of situations, from monitoring the speed and effects of climate change, to weather, and even espionage.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Today we look at its application in agriculture.

Kirk Finken: We spoke with a member of the research team in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who is involved in the very recent RADARSAT Constellation Mission launched in June 2019.

Narration: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Ignition… Lift off...

Andrew Davidson: My name is Andrew Davidson. I’m the manager of Earth Observation Operations at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, and you’re listening to /The First Sixteen/ Podcast.

Kirk Finken: So, Andrew, pun fully intended here, can you give us the overview?

What is RCM?

Andrew Davidson: In a nutshell, well, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission, RCM, is Canada’s latest contribution to synthetic aperture radar space missions. We launched, way back in 1995, RADARSAT-1. That was supposed to have an operational lifetime of about five years and lasted 17. And then in 2007, we launched RADARSAT-2 and that is still going. And in 2019, June 2019, we launched the RADARSAT Constellation Mission. And RCM is different from those other missions because instead of just launching one satellite, we actually launched three.

Three on one rocket.

Kirk Finken: So, June 2019, we get launched...?

Andrew Davidson: Yes.

Kirk Finken: In January 2020, the data starts to flow.

Andrew Davidson: Yeah, it's up there. It's in the commissioning stage. We have seen imagery. We saw the first engineering image in July, taken over northern Canada, which was really exciting to see. We have access now to some of the imagery, pre-operational imagery. We're playing with that; we're looking at that. We're seeing what the quality is like. We're trying to answer a few questions with that; trying to see where the consistencies and inconsistencies in that will be.

But when we saw the data... it really becomes real at that point.

When we look at Canada's agricultural resources, the only way to really monitor those resources frequently is using space-based earth observation. So, these data really do allow us to track and will allow us to track in the future, operationally, conditions throughout growing seasons that we really have never been able to do before.

Kirk Finken: But how is it a game changer?

Andrew Davidson: So, people often say, for example, is this a game changer for producers in that they use the data? And most of the producers I talk to, 99% of them, they don't actually directly use the data, right, because, you know, you have to have certain software and a certain background in science to be able to use this data effectively.

Where the game changer becomes, is how these data will be used by the Government of Canada but also the private sector to better monitor these resources. So, where we have producers, for example, subscribing to certain services, we start to think of things like precision agriculture. And to me, this is the really exciting part is, what we've seen with the launch of these types of missions is these data get used in an incredible diversity of innovative ways. Many ways which we could never have comprehended beforehand, but all of these will help to serve and better serve the agricultural sector as a whole in terms of providing information quicker, faster, and with more detail.

Kirk Finken: You often talk about developing tools. What do you mean?

Andrew Davidson: When we refer to tools what we're talking about is the automization of that process, right? Because you could do it manually; but doing it manually over Canada with so many images in such a wide extent, there’s more room for mistake and it would take you forever. So, the tools involve tools to process the data. Tools to create those crop maps. Tools to, for example, model crop yield. Tools, for example, to model surface soil moisture. And essentially when we talk about tools, we're talking about self-contained software which allow us to give us an outcome of some kind, whether it be soil maps in near real time, whether it be crop maps, whether it be yield predictions... these kinds of things.

Kirk Finken: So, are you talking about really the big crops, the big field crops or is it a variety of crops?

Andrew Davidson: So, for crop mapping, we get as detailed as we can; and some crops are very difficult to differentiate from space, small grains for example. But we are mapping probably about 20 or so crop classes across the country. And of course, we are interested in the major crops, but we also try and map the minor crops too. So, we are including those, and our ability to do that is improving.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Hey Kirk, you know when scientists say they don't quite know what is going to come of it? I feel like I need some more context or explanation. It makes me nervous.

Kirk Finken: Yeah, I know, but this one, it's not a like a trip to another planet or something, there are industry folks just dying to get their hands on the data coming in from the RADARSAT.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Like who?

Kirk Finken: Like Jacqui Empson Laporte, environmental specialist at Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, a.k.a. OMAFRA. Let's give her a call.

Hey Jackie, it's Kirk. How are you doing?

Jacqui Empson Laporte: I'm great thank you.

Kirk Finken: Good. I've got a couple questions for you.

So, how do you use the satellite and mapping data from AAFC?

Jacqui Empson Laporte: So, I've been using the satellite mapping data in my job for the last several years. And what I use it for, and what the agencies use it for in the Healthy Lake Huron Initiative, is we use it to look at trends. So, it's not about what one farmer is doing on the property, but rather sector or broader geographic-scale activity.

So, it really helps us to identify trends in farming practices that might have an influence on things like water quality or erosion control, or adoption of cover crops.

Kirk Finken: And so, how has that evolved? The remote sensing and remote mapping – how has that changed your work in environmental stewardship in the last few years?

Jacqui Empson Laporte: So, the Remote Sensing Project has changed and helped my work in environmental stewardship in two different ways. So, one thing is it helps us to be more proactive and to anticipate issues rather than simply responding to problems. So, for... an example is if we can see that there's a trend to higher corn production or higher soybean production, we can look at our erosion control, our cover crop adoption programs, and we can focus our education and outreach and our funding programs towards those kinds of best management practices.

And the second way that the remote sensing has helped my work in environmental stewardship is, it's given me a reliable and credible source of information that I can rely on year after year. And that continuity is very, very important. So, not only can I see geographic trends over one annual year, but I can see the trends over multiple years. So, I can see whether things are changing, and that credible and reliable source of information is invaluable.

Kirk Finken: Well, speak about the value. What is that value to you specifically?

Jacqui Empson Laporte: Sure. So, the value to us really is saving us resources. So, historically, we did sort of a manual crop mapping exercise where we had students who drove around the countryside and who identified crops on maps and then we did our analysis and our trend analysis from that manual process of going and actually looking in the fields. So, now that we have a source of information that we can use, we don't have to do that anymore. So, it does save us resources.

We still do some of that drive by confirmation, because we are looking at other things as well, but this saves us a lot of resources and it gives us a credible source of information that we can rely on when we're looking at designing our environmental programs or if we're looking at talking to our farmers about the trends that we're seeing in the landscape.

Kirk Finken: That's interesting. So, are you getting an idea as well of the value then, there to the sector?

Jacqui Empson Laporte: Yes. Some of the value to the sector is, it's very much a conversation starter. So, part of the communication aspect that is great about the remote sensing program is we can take those snapshots and send them out on social media and Twitter and generate a discussion with our farmers about, what do we see from the information that's presented. So, what I might interpret as a potential water quality issue, another farmer might look at it with a different lens -- an economic lens. And so, it enables us to have a conversation from two different perspectives.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Hey Kirk, did you hear that?

Kirk Finken: I did, yeah. It was really subtle though, but I heard it.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Yeah, it was the sound of 100,000 eyeglasses being pushed up on the bridges of noses. People being like... hmmm.

Kirk Finken: The collective sound of farmers, environmental scientists, data geeks and space nerds all across the country getting excited about the possibilities of RADARSAT.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Yeah. Kirk, there seems to be a lot of known knowns in this field of science. Are there any unknowns? I mean, are there any edges of darkness?

Kirk Finken: Great question. Here's Andrew again.

Andrew Davidson: Yeah, I think so. People often ask us the questions, and I'll go use RCM as an example, it's a good example. You know, people will say, you know, there's a new... one of the new beam modes on RCM: compact polarization. And people say, well what can you do with that?

And my response is... often is, we don't know fully yet. You know, we think this is going to have absolutely fantastic applications for agriculture. We're fairly certain it's going to be -- especially operationally -- but there hasn't been a massive amount of work done on this yet.

So, we're not really sort of right at the edge of darkness. There's sort of a... in many cases there is some lighting there. Maybe a dim lamp there, and of course, you know, we build our research and we move forward on the basis of what others have done. But, yeah, there's...

sometimes when we step into those domains where we say, yeah, this hasn't been done before or hasn't been done a lot before, and you feel that, yeah, we are pushing those frontiers of remote sensing science back. And you will see cutting edge research coming out within the next few years on the basis of the data that we come out... that we get out of this satellite.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Oh wow! Okay, okay, let's take off our space helmets, because it's getting hot in here.

Kirk Finken: Yeah, what a relief. I don't know how those astronauts do that, but anyways...

Sara Boivin-Chabot: We’re going to need to put on some other kind of down to earth footwear for upcoming episodes, right?

Kirk Finken: We will be speaking with Emily McAuley, Indigenous Science Liaison, a real agent of change in the field of agricultural science. She will be talking about the beauty and challenges of bridging Indigenous knowledge and Western science.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: I am looking forward to that.

Kirk Finken: So, until then, you first sixteen, you innovators, you first adopters in the ag and food sector, you know what to do...

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Right?

Both: Try something new.

Kirk Finken: Oh yeah.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: The First Sixteen is brought to you by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.


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Episode 004 - RADARSAT Constellation Mission - Agriculture from space

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