How a Startup Mining Asteroids Can Help Farmers

Last week, Planetary Resources, a startup with the audacious mission to mine asteroids for natural resources like water, announced a partnership with one of the Big 6 agribusinesses Bayer.

What is a company with its sights set on outer space doing partnering with an Earth-focused ag-chemicals company?

After developing the technologies it needs to survey and mine asteroids, the startup realized they could be used for Earth observation too. In particular, the Planetary Resources team has build a hyperspectral sensor, able to capture images beyond what the human eye can see (and what most satellite sensors capture). Until recently, this kind of technology has been expensive and cumbersome to build, but with the advent of cheaper nano technology and hardware more generally, it’s now become possible for independent companies that aren’t NASA or government-backed bodies, to construct the technology themselves.

In fact, Planetary Resources is not the only startup that’s done this and is planning to use this technology for agriculture; in Switzerland a startup called Gamaya is attaching proprietary hyperspectral sensors to drones.

By measuring 40 color bands in the visible to near-infrared spectrum, and looking at objects through an electromagnetic spectrum, hyperspectral sensors can detect the spectral signature of different materials. This means it can see different types of plants, differentiating between crops and weeds, which RGB and near-infrared filters struggle to do. RBG and near-infrared filters focus on measuring general biomass levels in plants, which can be detected by the levels of chlorophyll in the plants and thereby any crops stress.

But hyperspectral imagery goes one step further and can “quite literally take the temperature of the surface of the Earth, and measure things you cannot see” like wetness, dryness, said Planetary Resources’ CEO Chris Lewicki.

Planetary Resources is also going to deploy a midwave-infrared sensor offering thermographic mapping and night-imaging which can detect soil moisture levels.

Farmers and crop consultants — particularly those working across several thousands of acres — can use this information to address problems that they might not have had a chance to measure themselves on the ground. The sooner farmers can get to a part of their land showing crop stress, the more likely they can solve it with little overall impact on yield.

There are some questions marks around whether satellite imagery can show them these issues soon enough for them to be resolved. But with new developments — like hyperspectral imagery — coming down the pipe every week, it’s only a matter of time before farmers get just what they need from these technologies.

The large amount of venture capital funding that’s going into remote sensing technologies is also a sign of confidence, and Planetary Resources gathered a bevy of high profile investors to its recent $21 million Series A round last week.

Find out more about this deal, and others in the space — pun intended — on