Focus on COPERNICUS: an essential tool for the future of European agriculture?

Monday 21 January 2019

“Europe’s eyes on Earth”: this is the slogan of Copernicus, a European Earth observation program supervised and coordinated by the European Commission in partnership with EU Member States and a series of agencies, including the European Space Agency. Previously called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) until 2013, Copernicus provides free operational data and information services to public authorities, scientists, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens. The data are collected via a constellation of satellites called "Sentinels" and developed by the European Space Agency. The data are also collected via third-party satellites and completed by in situ (i.e. on-site) measurements.[1] Not only useful as a plot control tool, Copernicus may well become an indispensable tool for precision farming in the years to come.

Copernicus satellite imagery makes it possible to produce maps and various statistics grouped into six categories of services: atmosphere monitoring, marine environment monitoring, climate change, emergency management, security services and land monitoring. The latter area is of particular interest to agriculture, which can make use of information on the state of vegetation and the water cycle. As Pierre Delsaux, Deputy Director-General at the European Commission’s directorate for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs of the European Commission (DG GROW) explains, Copernicus data are already being used for crop monitoring and yield forecasting.[2] In Hungary, a study of the extent of agricultural areas affected by extreme rainfall in February and March 2016 was made possible by satellite images of Sentinel-2 and the US Landsat-8 satellite. A total of 131,245 hectares of water-affected areas have been detected throughout the country.[3]


A tool for agriculture monitoring

The administrative burden put on farmers in order to receive CAP aid could be reduced by using different vegetation indices to identify the type of crops on the plots in question as well as possible changes in existing crops and plot delineations. Potential inconsistencies between a farmer's declaration and the situation in situ can thus be detected by satellite. For Alain Istasse, Inspector General of the Aid Department of the General Direction of Agriculture in Wallonia, “This application of Copernicus Sentinels will significantly improve the way in which farmers submit online aid applications and, for the Walloon Paying Agency, it will help to keep the Land Parcel Identification System up-to-date”.[4]


Buzau County, Romania. Example of possible mismatches (right image, in orange) between the declared and observed crop.

Credit: Copernicus Sentinel data [2017]/ESA


A tool for precision farming

As Pierre Delsaux also explains, “Copernicus data are also used for smart farming, which relies on timely information to optimise and minimise the use of fertilisers and water.”[5] A range of companies use these data for the benefit of farmers and public authorities. This is notably the case of the Slovenian company Sinergise, which has developed an application (CLASS Crop view) using regularly updated satellite data in order to help detect differences in vegetation. This information given "from far above" must enable a farmer to know more accurately than by the naked eye the best way to distribute nutrients on the plot.[6] In Sweden, the start-up Vultus helps farmers to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizers with satellite images from Copernicus, allowing fertilizers to be applied at the best time and dosage.[7] ColomboSky, based in Italy, analyses thousands of satellite images of aquaculture waters and alerts farmers in case of anomalies detected among certain water parameters such as chlorophyll, turbidity, salinity and temperature. [8]


Vegetation index based on satellite images

Photo: Vultus 

According to Philippe Brunet, Director for Space Policy, Copernicus and Defence at the European Commission, the program "brings more than 500 businesses and 3,500 jobs to life in the 28 EU member states." The economic impact of Copernicus's satellite imagery is connected with its free-of-charge access: "Copernicus has relied on its policy of free exchange of data. This is one of the most important factors. Data is not free in any processing industry. This system has boosted innovation. For instance, if I give you access to my steel mine and plastics plant, it does not mean that you will be able to build a car yourself."[9]

Although agriculture did not wait for the growth of space imagery to develop over millennia, modern and efficient European agriculture will hardly be able to do without the information produced by Copernicus data for, among other things, the appropriate dosage of inputs, the general state of crops or the management of irrigation. Nevertheless, the agricultural world still needs to be introduced to the use of Copernicus data via communication actions aimed at professionals, students in agronomy but also at the general public at large. Rural areas will also need sufficient digital coverage to have easy access to these data. For its part, Copernicus has not finished putting into orbit its entire arsenal of satellites and still needs to think about how to build synergies with wider parts of the European economy.

[1] Copernicus brochure, European Commission, Directorate-General for Communication:

[2] Commission official: Water management among Copernicus’ future priorities, Euractiv:

[3] The ever growing use of Copernicus across Europe’s regions:, p.44

[4] Ibid., p.46.

[5] Commission official: Water management among Copernicus’ future priorities:

[6] Changez de perspective et prenez de meilleures décisions:

[7] Réduire l'utilisation d'engrais de 40% en utilisant l'imagerie satellite:

[8] See solutions proposed by ColomboSky :

[9] Le programme spatial européen Copernicus, une ambition citoyenne, un leadership économique:

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