Spying Cow Flatulence From Space May Predict the Price of Steak

January 9, 2018 06:14 PM
NASA Satellite

Cow flatulence may someday have a new scent: money.

Palo Alto, California-based Bluefield Technologies Ltd. plans to launch a fleet of satellites that can detect methane emissions, a technology that has the potential to catch leaks at oil and gas facilities or monitor climate-change commitments by nations. The most immediate use, though, might be for commodity traders tracking the supply of cattle.

Microbes in a cow’s stomach produce methane as they break down food, which is then released in manure, burps and flatulence. Measuring levels of the gas can indicate the size of herds in areas where shelters block visual checks, such as dairy farms or feedlots, said Yotam Ariel, Bluefield’s founder and chief executive officer. Such data can offer near real-time insight into fundamentals affecting cattle prices, as well as feed crops such as corn and soy, Ariel said.

“You can see the full life-cycle of a cow,” Ariel said in a phone interview. “For example, you can index the whole beef landscape in China as it changes daily, and see the cycle long before government reports.”

Cattle futures are the most heavily traded livestock derivative on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, with open interest of about 350,000 contracts, and government reports on herd size can swing prices. Futures settled at $1.1925 per pound on Friday.

More Eyes in the Sky

Bluefield is one of a growing number of companies seeking to take advantage of smaller, cheaper satellites and more robust computer processing to analyze data from space to measure everything from storage levels in oil tanks to counting cars in mall parking lots. That can help traders and analysts spot trends weeks or months before they become apparent when traditional economic and output figures are released. Companies and governments launched 310 satellites during the first eight months of last year, compared to 169 for all of 2016, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Measuring methane from space is at least a few years away from becoming a reality. Bluefield has been testing prototypes in laboratories and plans to put a sensor on an aircraft this year to demonstrate its effectiveness from high altitudes. The company hopes to launch two small satellites equipped with the sensors in 2019 and eventually have a fleet of 20 to cover the world.

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