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Aerial imagery used in down-to-earth farming decisions

Aerial and satellite mapping is becoming so sophisticated that, with additional development by researchers and commercial mappers, it will soon be available to help farmers make decisions about fertilising or harvesting crops, moving livestock, and other typical economic and land-management decisions.

The idea is not as futuristic as it might first seem. AusCover data captured from instruments aboard satellites or aircraft is being used in a variety of ways, and that includes the means to assist in sustainable land management.

At the broad continental or regional scales, the data can help monitor seasonal changes in vegetation cover, land degradation, and habitat fragmentation in natural and managed ecosystems, in response to large scale climatic and other factors that affect crop productivity and ecosystem services. And at higher levels of detail, remote-sensing imagery derived from either high-resolution satellites or aircraft-mounted systems is able to provide much more detail, and in three dimensions, on the structure, physiology and precise location of different crops and forest plantations, and adjoining patches of native vegetation.

A couple of examples show the scope of the technology to help people make better land-use decisions – and help protect the environment around them. At the broad scale, primary producers and natural resources managers might identify where land cover is diminishing, for example due to land-use pressures or natural causes such as drought, and use the imagery (in conjunction with other tools) to work out better ways to manage vegetation cover, for example by moving livestock from less productive to more productive paddocks. The difference the remote sensing makes is in the precision it gives the land manager.

At the higher resolution, a farmer with an intensive fruit plantation can use remotely sensed images to identify variations in crop performance that could be attributed to water or nutrient deficiency, or the presence of pests or diseases. Knowing this, and being able to see the precise extent and variation of it allows the producer to apply remedies in a more targeted manner. This means they can localise their remedy, which helps them maximise their efficiency. It leads to better harvests, for example because all plants in the crop mature together. At the same time, they reduce wastage and lessen the impact on surrounding landscapes.

Aerial images can reveal valuable information for farmers. Part A depicts the relative differences in the size of tree crowns across a single paddock in a mango plantation near Darwin. They range from red, representing large crowns, to blue, representing small crowns. Part B depicts the extent of flowering on the same mango farm. Orange shows where a lot of the mangoes are flowering, and green where there few or none are.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter August 2012

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