Space Travel and Agriculture

I am often glutton for punishment so every now and then I venture over to Facebook and after a few short minutes I remember why I don’t go on that site all that often anymore. I ran across one of the “Agvocates” (those people who advocate for agriculture) who was on a rant about the recent space travel adventures by a few of the super-rich dudes who own space travel companies, her rant was about how space travel is not carbon neutral. The rant appeared to be a retaliation about the comments toward parts of the agriculture community that are not thought of as being so carbon friendly by the same people who travel into space. That rant is not really a rabbit hole I care to venture down about who is more right or wrong that the other, but none the less it got me thinking about what kind of things in agriculture have benefited from space travel and space exploration.

I went online and started to search for things in agriculture that have benefited from technology that was developed in support of space travel. One of the first things I ran across was the use of satellite technology in farming. Satellite data is used to monitor weather, monitor snow cover, rain fall, moisture content, climate change and its effects on the health of crops, studying floods and how they threaten food security, satellite data is also used in conjunction with ground data to build models that help scientists study areas that may be at risk of a landslide after a natural disaster, as well as drought forecasting and early detection data which relies heavily on satellite imaging.

If you use GPS on a tractor to plant or harvest your crops, then you are benefiting from space exploration, GPS stands for Global Positioning System. When John Deere was developing their tractors to be able to drive through a field autonomously they turned to NASA. John Deere used data from NASA’s global network of ground stations and incorporate JPL’s software to create a more accurate navigation system for their tractors. With the use of this NASA based technology John Deere was able to offer a self-driving tractor that was accurate within inches verses only feet which was the case with the older technology. By 2015 about a third of the crop acreage in North America was being farmed using self-guidance systems.[1]

Lindsay Manufacturing Company from Lindsay Nebraska builds the Zimmatic Center pivot irrigation system, they use technology provided by NASA in the gear boxes that drive the wheels on the towers that move the irrigation system through the field. Midwest Research Institute was under a contract with Marshall Space Flight Center to compile a handbook with details of chemical and physical properties of 500 liquid and solid lubricants used by companies in the aerospace industry. The engineers of Lindsay manufacturing were able to use the information provided by NASA in the design of their gear boxes, this information helped reduce the amount of lubricant required and allowed them to use less expensive lubricants than they had previously used.[2]

The streamlined livestock trailer was developed based on technology from a NASA Research Program which investigated the aerodynamic characteristics of trailer/tractor combinations and suggested ways of reducing air resistance. NASA’s aerodynamic research technology was applied to the bull nose trailer manufactured by American Trailer Incorporated out of Oklahoma City OK, and it resulted in a 10 percent reduction in air drag, the reduction in air drag helps to reduce the amount of fuel needed to drag a trailer full of livestock down the road. [3]

In late 70’s and into the early 80’s McDonnell Douglas was using large vacuum chambers to test spacecraft components, the vacuum chambers also used microwave energy to produce heat in the chamber, this technology was found to be very useful and more cost efficient for drying agriculture grains. The conventional way of drying grains of rice caused the shell of the grain to crack, but with the new technology from McConnell Douglas the grain of rice could be dried faster, more evenly and did not cause damage to the shell of the rice grain. The technology was later used to dry soybeans that were being processed into high protein animal feed as well as vegetable oil, all thanks to the space exploration efforts.

An Illinois based company by the name of Spectrum has used NASA derived technology to create a hand held plant chlorophyll meter, the meter can be used to determine a plants chlorophyll content. This technology can help reveal plant stress which can be caused by factors like heat, insects, disease and lack of water or nutrients, this technology allows for these signs to be seen up to 16 days before visible signs emerge.[4]

Anyone use a Cummins Diesel engine in their operation? When Cummins was designing a turbo to add to their diesel engine, they used computer software designed by NASA that aided engineers in testing and developing turbine rotor designs to help make the turbo become more efficient and help to create more horsepower out of the Cummins diesel engine.

A company that was helping develop technology to be able to fly a drone on Mars has built a drone named Quantix. The drone can be used by farmers to scan crops with two high resolution cameras to help identify different plant health issues. Here is one success story from a farmer in California:[5]

“One walnut farmer in central California, who grows some 2,500 trees across 40 acres, scanned his orchard and saw that the trees on the northern end were not thriving as well as the ones on the southern part of the orchard. He knew the soil there was sandier, but the images and data showed him the sandy soil was more extensive than he had thought. “Based on the data, the farmer made some changes to how that area was irrigated, how nutrients were delivered, and even how the fruits were protected from the sun.” The impact was clear, Gitlin says. “The next growing season, he was able to increase yield by over $50,000—in one season.”

You ever hop in the pickup to head out and feed the animals or check on the crops and a warning on the dash comes on warning you of a tire that is low on air? That technology came from NASA, they developed the technology to monitor the tire pressure on the space shuttle. Today, U.S. law mandates a pressure gauge on every car tire because of the increased safety the pressure sensor technology provides to the automobile.[6]

Lastly a company in Colorado is working with technology derived from NASA in their studies of growing food in space to develop a sensor a farmer can attach to the leaf of a plant. That sensor will collect data on how much water the plant has received, either from rain or from irrigation. The sensor will also be able to provide information on the health of the plant. All of this information will be fed into a computer that will analyze the data and then can text the farmer if a portion of the field needs attention.[7]

These are just a few of the numerous advancements in technology the agriculture industry has benefited from by the space travel and exploration world. The future of agriculture will continue to benefit from more advanced technology as we continue to travel and learn about Space, the final frontier.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/directorates/spacetech/spinoff/john_deere

[2] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/api/citations/20020091946/downloads/20020091946.pdf

[3] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20030004755

[4] https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2009/er_10.html

[5] https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2020/ee_4.html

[6] https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2019/t_2.html

[7] https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2012/ee_2.html

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