Tech Talk: Steve Cubbage: Billionaire Space Cowboys Drive Ag Tech

April 9, 2019 03:03 PM
This year marks 50 years since mankind’s greatest achievement. The space race of the 1960s catapulted Neil Armstrong and the U.S. to the surface of the moon.

This year marks 50 years since mankind’s greatest achievement. The space race of the 1960s catapulted Neil Armstrong and the U.S. to the surface of the moon.

The innovation that accomplished such a Herculean feat literally changed the world in ways still hard to comprehend. Jokingly, the space race’s two greatest contributions were the Dustbuster cordless vacuum and Tang orange-powdered drink mix.

In all seriousness, if you had to point to an industry and individual that benefited most from man’s desire to explore and exploit space, production agriculture and the farmer would be at the top of the list. In some small or large way, autosteer, drones, imagery and the iPhone exist thanks to mankind’s greatest adventure to date.  

The future of space tech didn’t look too promising just a few years ago, which wasn’t good for ag tech given the two are inherently joined at the hip. Dwindling government budgets for out-of-this-world endeavors seriously handicapped NASA’s ability to do almost anything big in space. It’s sobering to acknowledge the last U.S. manned spaceflight occurred in July 2011. It’s an even harder pill to swallow knowing the country that put a man on the moon in the 1960s can’t even get one off the ground in the 21st century. U.S. astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets for $75 million per trip.  

When NASA mothballed the remaining space shuttle fleet, the GPS, communication, weather and imagery satellites that needed to get into orbit had to wait in a much longer and expensive line for their shot into space. However, the recent space delivery dilemma might just turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to the U.S. space program and, in turn, agriculture. That’s because the coolest thing you can do now if you’re a billionaire is build your own rockets and spaceships. Case in point:

  • SpaceX founded by tech mogul Elon Musk is launching its reusable rockets with payloads at a rate, and price point, the industry has never before seen.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has also joined the fray with his Blue Origin company, which has rockets named New Shepard and New Glenn.
  • English moneyman Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company is set to commercialize civilian space travel.
  • Turkish immigrant Eren Ozmen, who heads the Sierra Nevada Corporation, has designed a super sleek space plane dubbed “Dream Chaser.”

Affordable ways to get “electronic eyes and ears” into orbit drive innovation and investments that directly benefit agriculture. A perfect example is Planet, a startup microsatellite company that’s quickly becoming a key player in the ag imagery space. It regularly hitches rides for flocks of its satellites on SpaceX rockets. Planet and its growing list of competitors provide farmers detailed, insightful imagery on a much more timely basis. Images of fields are available nearly every other day. In the early days of NASA’s Landsat program, it might have been two to three weeks between images, and you hoped it wasn’t cloudy on that day.

There’s a tremendous amount of venture capital money flowing into bleeding edge imagery, weather, ag analytics and artificial intelligence companies. For example, Spire merges vast amounts of data from satellites and weather sensors with analytics to bring the power of space tech to the online cloud for real-time, real-world insights. Satellogic, another microsatellite company, has “spectroscopic satellites,” which pick up signals from light to understand the health of environmental organisms at the molecular level.

The point is we haven’t seen anything yet, and corn fields are about to be the most probed, prodded and observed square blocks on the planet. The hopeful upside is a more proactive, rather than reactive, agronomy protocol. Buckle up because these billionaire space cowboys are about to take agriculture for a wild ride.

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