The Sentinel-2B satellite launched in March 2017 is part of Europe’s Copernicus system of Earth-observation satellites. Credit: Airbus

TAMPA, Fla. — The European Space Agency launched a demonstration project June 6 to show how artificial intelligence could use satellite data to help certify organic cotton farms in India to prevent fraud.

The project aims to train software from German technology firm Marple to use imagery from ESA satellites, mainly two polar-orbiting Sentinel-2 spacecraft, to detect cotton fields across the country and automatically classify them by their cultivation method.

Marple piloted this capability with ESA two years ago in Uzbekistan, where they said the software distinguished between organic and conventional cotton with 98% accuracy.

The India demonstration will be conducted in partnership with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), a non-profit organization behind a voluntary global standard for the industry.

GOTS project manager Jeffrey Thimm said training the artificial intelligence in India, where climatic conditions are more diverse and the prevalence of small fields and intercropping make distinguishing organic cotton more complex, is important to improve the software’s accuracy.

The software is designed to draw from a spectrum of sensors that provide data on vegetation, water, and soil — as well as indices such as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a measure of the health and density of vegetation.

The first results from India are expected before the end of the year and GOTS plans to use them to improve yield estimates.

According to GOTS, the project would also help find cotton fields with traditional and ecologically friendly farming practices that make them potential candidates for organic certification, particularly smaller farms operating under the radar.

Fields certified as organic that are found to have failed to meet the criteria would be flagged for investigation before their cotton is harvested.

“Part of the problem is that no one really knows the degree to which fraudulent business practices have preyed upon the organic sector,” Thimm said.

There is also no reliable data source on the number of organic cotton farms in India, he added, making it difficult to know how much organic cotton is actually being cultivated and from where. 

ESA is co-financing the India project under its Business Applications and Space Solutions (BASS) program with GOTS. They have injected around 500,000 euros ($535,000) into the demonstration.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...