15 June 2011—At the very least, says satellite image product manager Stefanie Grundner, a wheat farmer from the steppes of Kazakhstan is going to be skeptical that a small firm in Germany knows which fertilizer he should use in his field.
But Grundner and her colleagues at RapidEye, a geospatial information company in Brandenburg an der Havel, are quickly making converts all around the agricultural world. RapidEye owns a five-piece satellite network that delivers imaging in five bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, and it can now count among its customers cotton farmers in eastern North Carolina, alfalfa growers in western Canada, and, yes, even Kazakh wheat farmers.
Using images created by optical instruments—each sensitive to specific bands in and around the visual spectrum—farmers can get a detailed map of the fertility of their fields. Equipped with GPS units, the farmers can then use variable-rate sprayers to boost crop yields and produce more precision-managed crops.
But RapidEye is a long way off from the fields it follows. The big bowl of its S-band antenna reclines on the shingled roof of the company headquarters on the tidy central square in Brandenburg an der Havel, about 45 minutes by train from Berlin. This down-to-earth working town boasts a new mall and office complexes but still moves to the clank and squeal of its East German trams.
RapidEye’s fleet of satellites are British-built SSTL UoSAT-12 models: 150-kilogram black cubes, each about the size of a dishwasher. Each one—Tachys, Mati, Trochia, Choros, and Choma—orbits the globe every 90 minutes at an altitude of 650 kilometers, spaced equidistant from one another, 75 degrees apart. This layout means the satellite constellation can touch any spot on the globe and image more than 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) daily through its precision-ground optical instruments.
Still, an ocean away, farm consultant Bill Peele understands RapidEye’s appeal. The 55-year-old founder of Impact Agronomics is happy to explain how plant signatures taken across different spectral bands—blue, green, red, red-edge, and near-infrared—can help growers in the four counties in North Carolina where he operates.