Application Remote Sensing in Agriculture - Lecture Note - Lecture Material
Application Remote Sensing in Agriculture


As we learned in the section on sensors, each one was designed with a specific purpose. With optical sensors, the design focuses on the spectral bands to be collected. With radar imaging, the incidence angle and microwave band used plays an important role in defining which applications the sensor is best suited for.

Each application itself has specific demands, for spectral resolution, spatial resolution, and temporal resolution.

Applications of Remote Sensing

To review, spectral resolution refers to the width or range of each spectral band being recorded. As an example, panchromatic imagery (sensing a broad range of all visible wavelengths) will not be as sensitive to vegetation stress as a narrow band in the red wavelengths, where chlorophyll strongly absorbs electromagnetic energy.

Spatial resolution refers to the discernible detail in the image. Detailed mapping of wetlands requires far finer spatial resolution than does the regional mapping of physiographic areas.

Temporal resolution refers to the time interval between images. There are applications requiring data repeatedly and often, such as oil spill, forest fire, and sea ice motion monitoring. Some applications only require seasonal imaging (crop identification, forest insect infestation, and wetland monitoring), and some need imaging only once (geology structural mapping). Obviously, the most time-critical applications also demand fast turnaround for image processing and delivery - getting useful imagery quickly into the user's hands.

In a case where repeated imaging is required, the revisit frequency of a sensor is important (how long before it can image the same spot on the Earth again) and the reliability of successful data acquisition. Optical sensors have limitations in cloudy environments, where the targets may be obscured from view. In some areas of the world, particularly the tropics, this is virtually a permanent condition. Polar areas also suffer from inadequate solar illumination, for months at a time. Radar provides reliable data, because the sensor provides its own illumination, and has long wavelengths to penetrate cloud, smoke, and fog, ensuring that the target won't be obscured by weather conditions, or poorly illuminated.

Often it takes more than a single sensor to adequately address all of the requirements for a given application. The combined use of multiple sources of information is called integration. Additional data that can aid in the analysis or interpretation of the data is termed "ancillary" data.

The applications of remote sensing described in this chapter are representative, but not exhaustive. We do not touch, for instance, on the wide area of research and practical application in weather and climate analysis, but focus on applications tied to the surface of the Earth. The reader should also note that there are a number of other applications that are practiced but are very specialized in nature, and not covered here (e.g. terrain trafficability analysis, archeological investigations, route and utility corridor planning, etc.).

Multiple sources of information
Each band of information collected from a sensor contains important and unique data. We know that different wavelengths of incident energy are affected differently by each target - they are absorbed, reflected or transmitted in different proportions. The appearance of targets can easily change over time, sometimes within seconds. In many applications, using information from several different sources ensures that target identification or information extraction is as accurate as possible. The following describe ways of obtaining far more information about a target or area, than with one band from a sensor.

The use of multiple bands of spectral information attempts to exploit different and independent "views" of the targets so as to make their identification as confident as possible. Studies have been conducted to determine the optimum spectral bands for analyzing specific targets, such as insect damaged trees.

Different sensors often provide complementary information, and when integrated together, can facilitate interpretation and classification of imagery. Examples include combining high resolution panchromatic imagery with coarse resolution multispectral imagery, or merging actively and passively sensed data. A specific example is the integration of SAR imagery with multispectral imagery. SAR data adds the expression of surficial topography and relief to an otherwise flat image. The multispectral image contributes meaningful colour information about the composition or cover of the land surface. This type of image is often used in geology, where lithology or mineral composition is represented by the spectral component, and the structure is represented by the radar component.

Information from multiple images taken over a period of time is referred to as multitemporal information. Multitemporal may refer to images taken days, weeks, or even years apart. Monitoring land cover change or growth in urban areas requires images from different time periods. Calibrated data, with careful controls on the quantitative aspect of the spectral or backscatter response, is required for proper monitoring activities. With uncalibrated data, a classification of the older image is compared to a classification from the recent image, and changes in the class boundaries are delineated. Another valuable multitemporal tool is the observation of vegetation phenology (how the vegetation changes throughout the growing season), which requires data at frequent intervals throughout the growing season.

"Multitemporal information" is acquired from the interpretation of images taken over the same area, but at different times. The time difference between the images is chosen so as to be able to monitor some dynamic event. Some catastrophic events (landslides, floods, fires, etc.) would need a time difference counted in days, while much slower-paced events (glacier melt, forest regrowth, etc.) would require years. This type of application also requires consistency in illumination conditions (solar angle or radar imaging geometry) to provide consistent and comparable classification results.

The ultimate in critical (and quantitative) multitemporal analysis depends on calibrated data. Only by relating the brightnesses seen in the image to physical units, can the images be precisely compared, and thus the nature and magnitude of the observed changes be determined.




Agriculture plays a dominant role in economies of both developed and undeveloped countries. Whether agriculture represents a substantial trading industry for an economically strong country or simply sustenance for a hungry, overpopulated one, it plays a significant role in almost every nation. The production of food is important to everyone and producing food in a cost-effective manner is the goal of every farmer, large-scale farm manager and regional agricultural agency. A farmer needs to be informed to be efficient, and that includes having the knowledge and information products to forge a viable strategy for farming operations. These tools will help him understand the health of his crop, extent of infestation or stress damage, or potential yield and soil conditions. Commodity brokers are also very interested in how well farms are producing, as yield (both quantity and quality) estimates for all products control price and worldwide trading.

Image of agricultural fieldsSatellite and airborne images are used as mapping tools to classify crops, examine their health and viability, and monitor farming practices. Agricultural applications of remote sensing include the following:

  • crop type classification
  • crop condition assessment
  • crop yield estimation
  • mapping of soil characteristics
  • mapping of soil management practices
  • compliance monitoring (farming practices)
Did you know?

Fields in Quebec

Did you know that remote sensing of agricultural areas could give us clues about our heritage? In Québec, farmer's field shapes are very different than in Saskatchewan. In Québec, long thin strips of land extend from riverbanks, following French settlers' tradition. These types of fields are also visible in Nova Scotia, where the Acadians farmed, in New Brunswick, and in parts of Ontario. In the prairies, the fields are square and strictly follow the township and range plan.

Fields in Saskatchewan


Crop Type Mapping

SAR/optical integration for crop mapping

Identifying and mapping crops is important for a number of reasons. Maps of crop type are created by national and multinational agricultural agencies, insurance agencies, and regional agricultural boards to prepare an inventory of what was grown in certain areas and when. This serves the purpose of forecasting grain supplies (yield prediction), collecting crop production statistics, facilitating crop rotation records, mapping soil productivity, identification of factors influencing crop stress, assessment of crop damage due to storms and drought, and monitoring farming activity.

Key activities include identifying the crop types and delineating their extent (often measured in acres). Traditional methods of obtaining this information are census and ground surveying. In order to standardize measurements however, particularly for multinational agencies and consortiums, remote sensing can provide common data collection and information extraction strategies.

Why remote sensing?
Remote sensing offers an efficient and reliable means of collecting the information required, in order to map crop type and acreage. Besides providing a synoptic view, remote sensing can provide structure information about the health of the vegetation. The spectral reflection of a field will vary with respect to changes in the phenology (growth), stage type, and crop health, and thus can be measured and monitored by multispectral sensors. Radar is sensitive to the structure, alignment, and moisture content of the crop, and thus can provide complementary information to the optical data. Combining the information from these two types of sensors increases the information available for distinguishing each target class and its respective signature, and thus there is a better chance of performing a more accurate classification.

Interpretations from remotely sensed data can be input to a geographic information system (GIS) and crop rotation systems, and combined with ancillary data, to provide information of ownership, management practices etc.

Data requirements
Crop identification and mapping benefit from the use of multitemporal imagery to facilitate classification by taking into account changes in reflectance as a function of plant phenology (stage of growth). This in turn requires calibrated sensors, and frequent repeat imaging throughout the growing season. For example, crops like canola may be easier to identify when they are flowering, because of both the spectral reflectance change, and the timing of the flowering.

Multisensor data are also valuable for increasing classification accuracies by contributing more information than a sole sensor could provide. VIR sensing contributes information relating to the chlorophyll content of the plants and the canopy structure, while radar provides information relating to plant structure and moisture. In areas of persistent cloud cover or haze, radar is an excellent tool for observing and distinguishing crop type due to its active sensing capabilities and long wavelengths, capable of penetrating through atmospheric water vapour.

Canada vs. International
Although the principles of identifying crop type are the same, the scale of observation in Europe and Southeast Asia is considerably smaller than in North America, primarily due to smaller field parcel sizes. Cloud cover in Europe and tropical countries also usually limits the feasibility of using high-resolution optical sensors. In these cases high-resolution radar would have a strong contribution.

Banana plantations

The sizable leaves of tropical agricultural crops (cocoa, banana, and oil palm) have distinct radar signatures. Banana leaves in particular are characterized by bright backscatter (represented by "B" in image). Monitoring stages of rice growth is a key application in tropical areas, particularly Asian countries. Radar is very sensitive to surface roughness, and the development of rice paddies provides a dramatic change in brightness from the low returns from smooth water surfaces in flooded paddies , to the high return of the emergent rice crop.

Flooded rice paddies in Asia

Case study (example)
The countries involved in the European Communities (EC) are using remote sensing to help fulfil the requirements and mandate of the EC Agricultural Policy, which is common to all members. The requirements are to delineate, identify, and measure the extent of important crops throughout Europe, and to provide an early forecast of production early in the season. Standardized procedures for collecting this data are based on remote sensing technology, developed and defined through the MARS project (Monitoring Agriculture by Remote Sensing).

The project uses many types of remotely sensed data, from low resolution NOAA-AVHRR, to high-resolution radar, and numerous sources of ancillary data. These data are used to classify crop type over a regional scale to conduct regional inventories, assess vegetation condition, estimate potential yield, and finally to predict similar statistics for other areas and compare results. Multisource data such as VIR and radar were introduced into the project for increasing classification accuracies. Radar provides very different information than the VIR sensors, particularly vegetation structure, which proves valuable when attempting to differentiate between crop type.

One the key applications within this project is the operational use of high resolution optical and radar data to confirm conditions claimed by a farmer when he requests aid or compensation. The use of remote sensing identifies potential areas of non-compliance or suspicious circumstances, which can then be investigated by other, more direct methods.

As part of the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS), remote sensing data supports the development and management of databases, which include cadastral information, declared land use, and parcel measurement. This information is considered when applications are received for area subsidies.

This is an example of a truly successfully operational crop identification and monitoring application of remote sensing.


Crop Monitoring & Damage Assessment

Assessment of the health of a crop, as well as early detection of crop infestations, is critical in ensuring good agricultural productivity. Stress associated with, for example, moisture deficiencies, insects, fungal and weed infestations, must be detected early enough to provide an opportunity for the farmer to mitigate. This process requires that remote sensing imagery be provided on a frequent basis (at a minimum, weekly) and be delivered to the farmer quickly, usually within 2 days.

Also, crops do not generally grow evenly across the field and consequently crop yield can vary greatly from one spot in the field to another. These growth differences may be a result of soil nutrient deficiencies or other forms of stress. Remote sensing allows the farmer to identify areas within a field which are experiencing difficulties, so that he can apply, for instance, the correct type and amount of fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide. Using this approach, the farmer not only improves the productivity from his land, but also reduces his farm input costs and minimizes environmental impacts.

There are many people involved in the trading, pricing, and selling of crops that never actually set foot in a field. They need information regarding crop health worldwide to set prices and to negotiate trade agreements. Many of these people rely on products such as a crop assessment index to compare growth rates and productivity between years and to see how well each country's agricultural industry is producing. This type of information can also help target locations of future problems, for instance the famine in Ethiopia in the late 1980's, caused by a significant drought which destroyed many crops. Identifying such areas facilitates in planning and directing humanitarian aid and relief efforts.

Why remote sensing?
Crops damaged by tornado (lower centre)Remote sensing has a number of attributes that lend themselves to monitoring the health of crops. One advantage of optical (VIR) sensing is that it can see beyond the visible wavelengths into the infrared, where wavelengths are highly sensitive to crop vigour as well as crop stress and crop damage. Remote sensing imagery also gives the required spatial overview of the land. Recent advances in communication and technology allow a farmer to observe images of his fields and make timely decisions about managing the crops. Remote sensing can aid in identifying crops affected by conditions that are too dry or wet, affected by insect, weed or fungal infestations or weather related damage. Images can be obtained throughout the growing season to not only detect problems, but also to monitor the success of the treatment. In the example image given here, a tornado has destroyed/damaged crops southwest of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Real-colour image of cropsHealthy vegetation contains large quantities of chlorophyll, the substance that gives most vegetation its distinctive green colour. In referring to healthy crops, reflectance in the blue and red parts of the spectrum is low since chlorophyll absorbs this energy. In contrast, reflectance in the green and near-infrared spectral regions is high. Stressed or damaged crops experience a decrease in chlorophyll content and changes to the internal leaf structure. The reduction in chlorophyll content results in a decrease in reflectance in the green region and internal leaf damage results in a decrease in near-infrared reflectance. These reductions in green and infrared reflectance provide early detection of crop stress. Examining the ratio of reflected infrared to red wavelengths is an excellent measure of vegetation health. Colour infrared image of cropsThis is the premise behind some vegetation indices, such as the normalized differential vegetation index (NDVI) (Chapter 4). Healthy plants have a high NDVI value because of their high reflectance of infrared light, and relatively low reflectance of red light. Phenology and vigour are the main factors in affecting NDVI. An excellent example is the difference between irrigated crops and non-irrigated land. The irrigated crops appear bright green in a real-colour simulated image. The darker areas are dry rangeland with minimal vegetation. In a CIR (colour infrared simulated) image, where infrared reflectance is displayed in red, the healthy vegetation appears bright red, while the rangeland remains quite low in reflectance.

Examining variations in crop growth within one field is possible. Areas of consistently healthy and vigorous crop would appear uniformly bright. Stressed vegetation would appear dark amongst the brighter, healthier crop areas. If the data is georeferenced, and if the farmer has a GPS (global position satellite) unit, he can find the exact area of the problem very quickly, by matching the coordinates of his location to that on the image.

Data requirements
Detecting damage and monitoring crop health requires high-resolution imagery and multispectral imaging capabilities. One of the most critical factors in making imagery useful to farmers is a quick turnaround time from data acquisition to distribution of crop information. Receiving an image that reflects crop conditions of two weeks earlier does not help real time management nor damage mitigation. Images are also required at specific times during the growing season, and on a frequent basis.

Remote sensing doesn't replace the field work performed by farmers to monitor their fields, but it does direct them to the areas in need of immediate attention.

Canada vs. International
Efficient agricultural practices are a global concern, and other countries share many of the same requirements as Canada in terms of monitoring crop health by means of remote sensing. In many cases however, the scale of interest is smaller - smaller fields in Europe and Asia dictate higher resolution systems and smaller areal coverage. Canada, the USA, and Russia, amongst others, have more expansive areas devoted to agriculture, and have developed, or are in the process of developing crop information systems (see below). In this situation, regional coverage and lower resolution data (say: 1km) can be used. The lower resolution facilitates computer efficiency by minimizing storage space, processing efforts and memory requirements.

As an example of an international crop monitoring application, date palms are the prospective subject of an investigation to determine if remote sensing methods can detect damage from the red palm weevil in the Middle East. In the Arabian Peninsula, dates are extremely popular and date crops are one of the region's most important agricultural products. Infestation by the weevil could quickly devastate the palm crops and swallow a commodity worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Remote sensing techniques will be used to examine the health of the date crops through spectral analysis of the vegetation. Infested areas appear yellow to the naked eye, and will show a smaller near infrared reflectance and a higher red reflectance on the remotely sensed image data than the healthy crop areas. Authorities are hoping to identify areas of infestation and provide measures to eradicate the weevil and save the remaining healthy crops.

Case study (example)
Canadian Crop Information System: A composite crop index map is created each week, derived from composited NOAA-AVHRR data. Based on the NDVI, the index shows the health of crops in the prairie regions of Manitoba through to Alberta. These indices are produced weekly, and can be compared with indices of past years to compare crop growth and health.

drought area analysis

In 1988, severe drought conditions were prevalent across the prairies. Using NDVI values from NOAA AVHRR data, a drought area analysis determined the status of drought effects on crops across the affected area. Red and yellow areas indicate those crops in a weakened and stressed state, while green indicates healthy crop conditions. Note that most of the healthy crops are those in the cooler locations, such as in the northern Alberta (Peace River) and the higher elevations (western Alberta). Non-cropland areas (dry rangeland and forested land) are indicated in black, within the analysis region.