Gates Foundation grant to support research on satellite crop surveillance

A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will enable Penn State researchers to explore whether high-resolution satellite imagery can accurately identify insect and disease damage to crops on small African farms. Credit: Courtesy of David HughesAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A research team in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant — an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A group led by David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled "Pest and Disease Surveillance via High-Resolution Satellites."

Hughes explained that satellites could be an important tool for pest and disease surveillance of multiple crops over large geographic regions in low-income countries. High-resolution satellites from commercial services image the globe daily, and publicly funded fleets of satellites maintained by governmental agencies have a suite of tools to measure crop health, soil moisture and water availability. Such coverage already is critical for documenting crop stress due to droughts.

But to date, he noted, high-resolution satellite imagery has not played a role in diagnosing crop diseases and pest infestations. In smallholder settings, the significant challenge appears to stem from the mode of farming practiced — it is often polyculture on irregularly shaped farms that have abundant trees, large shrubs and weeds growing within the crops.

"Satellites in agriculture typically measure vegetation indices," Hughes said. "These give a measure of health and growth. If farms contain multiple crops, are irregularly shaped and have many other types of vegetation, then it's challenging to discriminate between crop and noncrop plants. Even when the data tell us that a crop is stressed, it's also difficult to determine whether the stress is due to insect pests, disease, poor nutrients or drought. From space, a sick plant is a sick plant."

To test the ability of satellite imagery to help diagnose insect and disease problems, Hughes' team will leverage existing projects underway in Kenya, where researchers are using artificial intelligence on smartphone apps and observations from drones, scientists and cooperating farmers to identify plant pests and diseases. Researchers will utilize the group's access to high-resolution satellite data through a collaboration with, a commercial satellite imaging service, and compare it to "ground-truth" data collected by experts, drones and smartphones.

"Our work is innovative because incorporating multiple data types across multiple scales has never been done with smallholder farmers as the focus," said Hughes, who also has an appointment in the Eberly College of Science. "We are in the unique position of using ground-truth data from disease experts, drones and machine-learning models across 28,000 Kenyan farms to see the true extent of plant diseases and test the usefulness of satellites.

"We hypothesize that high-resolution satellites can be a global, low-cost tool for diagnosing pests and diseases on smallholder farms."

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) supports innovative thinkers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Hughes' project is one of 34 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 21 grants announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To receive funding, Hughes and other Grand Challenges Explorations winners demonstrated in a two-page, online application a bold idea in one of three critical global heath and development topic areas. The foundation will be accepting applications for the next GCE round in February 2019.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since the program's launch in 2008, more than 1,400 projects in more than 65 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times per year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Last Updated November 09, 2018