Increased traffic could be a good thing for agriculture. Not more cars and pick-ups crowding rural roads, and not more trips across fields with farm equipment. Such traffic creates trouble.
But as satellite traffic builds, the benefits that come from images captured by the eyes in the skies will become both more abundant and more affordable.
“Over the next few years, we'll see more satellite traffic,” says Gordon Wells, a University of Texas associate professor and advisor to the Texas Natural Resources Information Service in Austin. “More satellites in the sky mean more frequent data and probably more reasonable fees,” he said. “We have no guarantees of significantly increased satellite traffic, but it looks feasible.”
Wells said a French space vehicle launched last May could provide visuals of Texas and other areas of the South and Southwest. Those images provide more than unique perspectives of the terrain.
“For one thing, we can use these visuals to map irrigation more accurately,” Wells said. “We'll need some field support and some volunteer help, but satellite images will allow us to gather data rapidly.”
He said space photos also identify invasive vegetative species, such as salt cedar, which affect water quality and quantity. “It's a good tool to determine how well eradication efforts are working,” he said.
“We're also looking at applications with remote sensing. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology was integrated into farming rather well over the last decade.”
Speed will be the next frontier, Wells said. “Satellite images now feature higher resolution, providing more accurate data, but we need real-time information to make on-farm decisions. Farmers can't wait two months for data. They need to make decisions within a week.”
Part of the problem, Wells said, comes from relatively few passes by satellites currently in orbit.
“We can't always guarantee we'll get a good picture,” he said. “Cloudy conditions, for instance, may limit what we can see. We don't have the coverage frequency necessary to overcome that.”
He said satellite technology that meets time requirements will be available, however, and as more companies and countries launch more space sentries, passes will be more frequent, information will be more accurate and farm applications will be more reliable.
Wells said as the Southwest continues to make huge demands on natural resources accurate data will be critical for land and water conservation. “County and regional planning boards will find this technology extremely helpful.”
Satellite photos already indicate where water from the Rio Grande and its tributaries flows. Wells provides a weekly report to the Texas Department of Agriculture to monitor Mexico's water use along the Rio Grande. That information has become especially important as Texas officials tried to enforce a 1944 water treaty.
Part of that treaty, which commits Mexico to provide 350,000 acre-feet of water per year to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, also stipulates that Mexico will use runoff from Rio Grande tributaries to help honor that commitment.
Wells can view satellite images and determine if adequate precipitation has accrued to pay the water debt. In some cases, images indicate water was available but not passed along to Texas.
In the 21st century, it's hard to hide from technology.