Dirt and Satellites. What’s the deal?

AKA some news: I'm here to tell you about DirtSat.

Forget the trowels and hoes, let’s farm with satellites and data models. Dirt is the medium, satellites and AI are the fertilizer.

The farming world has been reaping the benefits of technology for some time, increasing yields and profits with predictive analytics. I’m creating this space to talk about applying similar technology to help urban farmers amplify their footprint and become a local force for food production within their communities. It’s time for urban areas to reclaim their rooftops.

That’s the quick and dirty version. But there’s a lot more to it...

Like many others, my pre-Covid plans took a big left turn. The summer of 2020 started with a pivot, as the likelihood of traveling to Japan to fulfill a three-month research position studying lunar construction slowly faded from view. Instead, I grabbed the opportunity to enter my recently completed urban agriculture thesis into a European competition highlighting the use of geospatial data to benefit life on earth. The competition sponsor, Planet — arguably the world’s leader in Earth Observation (EO) data, sought new and innovative business solutions to help solve large global challenges through EO data. While the solution was ultimately conferred with runner-up status, the validation compelled me to think more deeply about the impact this project could make.

People > Cities

As someone who has spent the majority of her life in cities of considerable scale, the challenges of poverty and food insecurity are never far from sight. And with more and more people projected to move into urban centers, that crisis is unfolding into an unmitigated disaster. But how do you tackle food insecurity in inner cities when default solutions are reliant on complex supply chains, transporting food from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. And as importantly, how do you do it without relying on fossil fuel models that ship and refrigerate, taxing the environment to the brink.

While contemplating these challenges, a concrete outline to implement a new food production pathway took shape. One that..

  • decreases harmful carbon emissions in transportation,

  • eases the burden of food production on rural producers,

  • and instead, accelerates climate resilience (with a little help from EO).

Changing perspectives

Fifteen years in the architecture and construction industry culminated in the development of a wide portfolio of projects. This experience has granted me a broad understanding of city infrastructure assets that is perhaps less commonly observed/noticed. Combined with a more recent pivot into the space sector (yeah, outer space), I have been exposed to the immense power of geospatial data and ways it can be leveraged to ‘see’ cities in new ways.

I began to wonder if the usual ways of engaging the world were also holding us back. We all see from eye-level, but always from a ground-based position. It isn’t until we’re multiple stories above ground, in high rises or on viewing platforms, that a new perspective unfolds.

To those who’ve experienced looking out an airplane window, viewing the full geographical footprint of a city in a single frame, there’s a distinct advantage to seeing at that scale. Satellite data allows us to see from an even greater new perspective. Suddenly ground level isn't the only occupiable space. That’s when I started to understand the enormous untapped potential of rooftops.

Not simply as a collection of unused spaces, but converted into city-wide food growing acreage. A whole network of connected rooftop food production.

By connecting 10-100-1000 rooftop farms with enabling technologies, not only can those farms grow more food, but farmers also benefit from a range of granular, near real-time insights into their operations. By pooling analytics, producers benefit from data shared by all in-network farms - as the number of farms grows, so too grows the data. With a deeper understanding of the big picture, efficient and sustainable management of each individual farm becomes attainable and scalable.

I’ve spent the last few months investigating the technology, expertise, channels and networks needed to actualize this concept. Stripped of all the acronyms and tech-speak, as an endeavor, it’s equal parts intimidating and exhilarating.

Stitching it all together

Rural producers are buckling under the pressure to streamline operations and squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of their fields. This model is neither sustainable nor equitable. Cities have so much energy and potential to contribute to feeding themselves if we expand opportunities for producing food. Vertical indoor farming is a great option which should be fully supported, but it’s not enough on its own.

I’m proposing a complementary solution that not only augments healthy, locally grown food, but one that simultaneously boosts a host of climate resilience initiatives. Do more with less. We shouldn’t be asking any more of rural farmers than we would ask of ourselves, if we wish to move the needle forward.

This is why I started DirtSat.

In a curious but consequential way, all the different threads of my experience have come together: crafting political space, building physical space, and studying outer space have inscribed an intense sense of commitment. A commitment to tackle two immensely unforgiving and unrelenting issues - food insecurity and climate change. I know that neither is an easy problem to solve, but I can’t imagine anything more meaningful for me to work on, given my unique intersection of experiences, skills, interests, and network.

Thank you to everyone who signed on to DirtSat’s ride. As I navigate this first stretch, filled with vacillating swings between excitement-to-reservation (and back again), the early connections I forged are coming to fruition. Anyone new to this adventure, I hope you’ll share the journey with me.

So stay tuned — I’m just starting and will be sharing more next week!

Sincerely,
Christine


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