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Satellite Data Inform Forecasts of Crop Gro 


NASA Technology 

F arming has never been more productive, but 
increasing demands from a growing economy 
and world population mean age-old risks such as 
insects and plant disease remain significant challenges for 
agriculture. To advance technologies that would make 
farming more efficient and productive, NASA teamed 
up with the United States Department of Agriculture 
in 2000 to form the Ag 20/20 program. An important 
intention of the Ag 20/20 program was to champion the 
use of remote sensing technology for operational use in 
agricultural crop management practices at the level of 
individual farms. Managed on NASA’s end by scientists 
at S tennis Space Center, Ag 20/20 supported the incor- 
poration of NASA geospatial data into the development 
of innovative crop management technology tools that 
could lead to increased production efficiency, decreased 
economic risks, and decreased environmental impacts 
from farming operations. 

Among those supporting the program was the 
Institute for Technology Development, a nonprofit cor- 
poration based in Mississippi. One of its researchers, Ken 
Copenhaver, worked with NASA beginning in the mid- 
2000s to analyze satellite data, especially data coming 
from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer 
(MODIS), an instrument flown on two NASA satellites, 
Terra and Aqua. MODIS provides a complete picture of 
Earth’s surface every one to two days in 36 spectral bands, 
giving us a wide-ranging view of what’s happening on 
the planet, from forest fires and atmospheric water vapor 


levels to phytoplankton blooms. Copenhaver worked 
with researchers at Stennis to match remote sensing imag- 
ery from MODIS into applied models that could yield 
information on crop health and vigor throughout the 
growing season. 

Technology Transfer 

Several years later, the funds for the institute’s con- 
tracts dried up, and Copenhaver joined the University of 
Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where a colleague of his named 
Steffen Mueller was working on similar land-use and 
agriculture projects. Because the local area is a big corn- 
producing region, Copenhaver and Mueller soon teamed 
up to develop models that could predict crop production. 
“It started with interest from ethanol plants, because they 
have to go out and buy directly from corn producers, and 
they want to know what corn production is like in the 
counties that surround them. Grain elevators were facing 
the same problem,” says Copenhaver. 

He used what he learned during the Ag 20/20 Project 
to incorporate geospatial information into his model, 
particularly data coming from MODIS’s daily surface 
reflectance measurements — that is, measurements of how 
much solar radiation different parts of Earth’s surface 
reflect, which reveals a great deal of information about 
ground cover and how it changes over time. With a 230- 
meter resolution, the information allowed Copenhaver to 
start predicting yield on a local scale, and the resulting 
software tool became known as LandViewer. 


Not long after Copenhaver joined UIC, Mueller was 
at a conference and met Susan Olson, vice president 
of products for agriculture and biofuels at Genscape 
Inc., which has its corporate headquarters in Louisville, 
Kentucky. Genscape specializes in providing real-time 
data that informs decision-makers in energy markets, and 
the two got to talking about LandViewer and its appli- 
cations in Genscape’s area of interest. “One thing led 
to another,” says Copenhaver, “and Genscape ended up 
buying LandViewer from UIC in 2013 and then hired us 
to develop it.” 

Benefits 

Now commercially available as subscription-based 
software, LandViewer uses a variety of data to provide 
daily updates on the state of corn vegetation, incorporat- 
ing nearly 30 variables that include NASA satellite data. 
The result is a prediction of future corn production on 
national, state, and county scales — a level of detail that is 
rare among competing products, says Copenhaver. 

“That’s because of the way we incorporate NASA’s 
geospatial data into the model,” he says. “If we didn’t 
have the NASA data, we’d just be offering what everyone 
else offers: a weather model that predicts yield. But the 
NASA data allows us to work at a high resolution, and it 
gives us the ability to adjust our model if crop production 
isn’t matching what the weather models say it’s supposed 
to be.” 

The NASA data LandViewer uses comes primarily 
from MODIS. Vegetation vigor measurements are well 




LandViewer is an online, subscription-based product that predicts crop production. The software dashboard (above) provides real-time views of the latest data and includes tools such as comparison 
map views and data commentary. 


known as an accurate predictor of eventual crop yield, 
and Genscape uses MODIS’s daily surface reflectance 
measurements to develop vegetation vigor maps. These 
are supplemented and validated by nighttime surface 
temperature measurements provided by MODIS and 
then compared to previous years’ models and yields to 
create forecasts. 

These data don’t just provide high-resolution 
geospatial information; Copenhaver says they can also 
give the company additional insights that weather-based 
prediction models miss. For example, when a corn plant 
overheats, its respiration and photosynthesis are both 
impaired, and that negatively affects yield in the long 
run. “Overheated crops tend to shut down at night, 
and we can actually see that by analyzing nighttime 


surface temperatures on a field-by-field basis,” he says. 
“Observations like that are factors in our model.” 

LandViewer’s primary user base is still ethanol 
production plants, which, it turns out, really means the 
corn farmers themselves. “You might think that we’re 
giving ethanol plants the advantage in bargaining with 
farmers, but the fact is that the farmers are the ones sitting 
on the boards of these plants, for the most part,” says 
Copenhaver. “What we’re finding is that this software 
gives everyone better information so that everybody can 
make the best decisions to help keep the wheels of this 
industry turning.” 

The software is still a relatively new product, and the 
company is exploring its potential in multiple markets. In 
addition to ethanol plants, the company is also promoting 


the software to grain traders who buy and sell corn on a 
large scale daily. For traders, advance knowledge of prob- 
able corn production levels can help them set better prices 
and manage risk. 

Genscape’s NASA connection is an ongoing one, as 
the company grabs the latest satellite data every day to 
inform its prediction models. But Copenhaver says the 
real core of the technology is a product of his time at 
Stennis. “The model powering LandViewer came directly 
from those days: I worked with different groups that were 
using MODIS data, calibrating it, and developing new 
products for MODIS. It was while I was at NASA that I 
learned a lot about how to do this.” ♦♦♦ 


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