Not far from the bustle of downtown Fargo, two multi-million dollar receiving stations sit on a farm gathering data from space.
Lanny Faleide can see them from his window, the Epcot-like white fiberglass glistening in the sun. He likes to watch them, once the satellites start popping up over the horizon, begin their slow 180 degree rotation, gathering pixels in the form of numbers. The pixels are sent to their owners, the San Francisco based startup Planet Labs, which made headlines when they began sending miniature satellites into space by the dozens.
Faleide gets the pixels too, through the system he created called SatShot Inc.
SatShot is a company Faleide started in 1994 (then called Agri ImaGIS), as a geographic information system (GIS) for processing satellite imagery. In simplified terms, they process pixels from space.
Satshot currently provides spacial mapping for millions of acres of farmland all over the world. Customers use their platform by signing up for an account online, and tracing a boundary around their land on a map similar to Google Maps (in fact, it’s an online map developed three years before Google’s).
Users can then then pull up an archived satellite image of their land for analysis. They can also activate the land to automatically receive images taken by satellites SatShot is using up in space.
Farmers use these images to analyze crops and spot patterns in vegetation. Any linear, straight or pivot discolorations in the field reveal a human error, Faleide said; some of their customers have discovered sprinkler heads not reaching far enough. One Canadian farmer found his air seeder had an off-kilter wing that was causing thinner vegetation.
The targeted approach can save up to 20 percent on resources like fertilizer and other chemicals, Faleide said.
“If you want to take another step, you can take those vegetation patterns on the field and export it to your tractor, and change the rates based on the quality of your vegetation,” Faleide explained. SatShot is currently working with John Deere to create an easy integration into tractors, he said.
Drones vs. Satellites?
The service may sound similar to what many drone companies are promising; the ability to gather farmland data from unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) flying over acres of land. Faleide, however, compares the two services similar to a doctor’s check-up. One is the general inspection, the other a microscope.
“[Satellites] are pulling a pixel the size of about 10 – 15 feet [of land]. The UAV is going to give me a pixel the size of an inch,” Faleide said. “All the processes you do with drone imagery, that’s already been done… it’s just a matter of scale.”
He even poses that perhaps drones are gathering more data than is really necessary. Whereas a UAV can take a very high-resolution look at one field in a day, satellite images can gather a more blanket look at thousands of fields in a few minutes, he said.
“There’s too much data. You’re seeing so much detail…and it takes so much time to process the data, and so much time to shoot that field,” he said. “A UAV can shoot higher resolution images. But that’s not what I need. I need a general view of…where to treat areas of that field.”
Building a SatShot satellite
Currently, SatShot pulls imagery from the satellites of private companies such as RapidEye, Airbus and GeoVantage, as well as NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite. Using PlanetLabs satellites is a work in progress; currently they are in research and development mode.
Soon, however, SatShot may be using a satellite of their own. Although it’s still in early talks, SatShot and another anonymous company are partnering to create a satellite made specifically for agriculture.
“We want to build the satellite based off of agriculture’s needs,” Faleide said. “Agriculture is the biggest industry in the world.”
The satellite would be built here in North Dakota, he said.
The distance between the moon and the farm
Faleide, who has family farmland in Maddock, North Dakota, was using aerial imagery to optimize his farm long before the idea of “precision agriculture” was a popular idea. He had his pilot’s license as a North Dakota State University student back in 1975, and would fly over his fields taking infrared images.
It was not long before he made the connection with outer space. As a 13-year-old he watched Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon and wanted to be an astronaut. When he watched the first satellites go up in 1986 from France, he called up the company and actually received a 200+ page manual in the mail, detailing their research.
“It’s all about curiosity,” said Faleide, now 59.
A year later, when he returned from Fargo to Maddock with his wife and children, he knew he wanted to start a company that would pioneer the world of satellite imagery.
“I remember saying, wouldn’t it be cool if we were the world’s largest distributor of satellite imagery for agriculture?” he said.
He recalls toying with the idea in line at a fast food stop, a grain truck piled with all their furniture outside. It was there he ran into an old friend who worked at American Crystal Sugar. They shared their latest ventures, and Faleide asked, “Who would I talk to about monitoring sugar beet crop?” “Well, that would be me,” the friend responded.
By the end of that year, American Crystal Sugar was Faleide’s first customer. This was 1994.
Creating the future
Despite early interest, building the SatShot platform was slow-going. Faleide’s vision to provide satellite imagery was so far beyond its time – the Internet was still in infancy stage – that he was forced to build up from scratch.
Only now, 22 years later, are people beginning to understand things like “the cloud” and “spacial mapping,” he said.
In the meantime, SatShot has spent the time automating their process. In an anticlimactic moment a few weeks ago, Faleide realized they had reached a breakthrough when he received a notification on his phone. It was a notice informing him that satellite images for their customer’s farmland in Russia had been processed and sent. Faleide just watched it happen.
“Our system automatically fetches data off of other servers. We programmed it to do that without any human intervention,” he said. “If we hadn’t automated everything, we’d need over a hundred people.”
Instead, they have seven, working from an office in downtown Fargo. The way Faleide describes it, they’re not your conventional group either. A 72-year-old engineer on the team works slowly but methodically, with a refined expertise. Another programmer has Asperger’s and couldn’t be hired anywhere else, Faleide said.
“But he’s a savant,” Faleide said. “He builds code like nobody else builds code.”
Anthony Molzahn, who is also a programmer, runs at 200 mph and does the work of four employees, Faleide said.
“That’s how we stay in business,” he said, of the team.
Not that it has been a struggle so much as a slow-moving process. SatShot currently services thousands of individual farmers, crop consultants, agricultural dealers and corporations, he said.
“Since 14 years ago, we’ve increased our exposure by at least 10 times,” he said in an article done by NASA earlier this year.
However, like the mini Epcot that sits outside Faleide’s window, not many people know about SatShot. The company has flown relatively under the radar. Only now, Faleide said, are people beginning to grasp the extent of space technology and the significance of their work.
And still, his gaze is fixated on the future, on planets yet untouched and technology not yet discovered.
“The best thing that this country could ever do, and what Elon Musk is doing, is pushing NASA and the country to change their focus from the moon, which is not exciting, to Mars, which is really exciting,” he said. “That’s going to push technology to the nth level. To what we don’t have today.”
Read more about SatShot in this article by NASA.
Photos courtesy of SatShot Inc.