When studying as an undergraduate at McGill University more than 30 years ago, Mark Friedl came in contact with a question that would define his career: How can satellites offer a long-term and real-time perspective of environmental processes and change on Earth? The concept captured Mark’s imagination, fueling his research and work with public agencies such as NASA, as a professor and co-director at Boston University, as a founding member and Chief Science Officer at TellusLabs, and now as the Remote Sensing Lead within Indigo’s GeoInnovation team. Mark has looked to understand how, as he describes it, “remote sensing can support global change science.”
“Sustainable solutions need to be built for the planet,” Mark said, discussing how agriculture is a natural fit for remote sensing work, “and data from satellites offers us a path to those solutions. This means it’s up to us, in the remote sensing field, to make remote sensing data useful and accessible in ways that allow us to generate powerful insights into how the food system is operating across the planet.”
Mark attended the University of California, Santa Barbara for a Ph.D. in remote sensing — the ability to recognize and record activity on land without physically being present — and microclimatology — the way specific sets of atmospheric conditions differ from place to place. In the late 1980s, while still at UCSB, Mark participated in one of the first large-scale remote sensing field experiments that NASA ever performed, and which provided the blueprint for a series of NASA experiments that continue today.
Using detailed field measurements collected at a site in Kansas, Mark and a team of researchers determined how well satellites could measure important land surface parameters ranging from surface temperature to the amount of plant biomass on the ground. Mark’s focus, for this specific project, was to develop a model that used remote sensing to measure how much heat and water vapor was being transferred from the land to the atmosphere, and vice versa. The field portion of the project lasted for several years and became the basis for Mark’s dissertation.
"Sustainable solutions need to be built for the planet, and data from satellites offers us a path to those solutions."
Over the past five to ten years, Mark noted, public and private investment in remote sensing technology has taken off in a way that would never have been imaginable to him when he was working on his dissertation. Today, satellite data has dramatically higher quality, thanks to more advanced and higher resolution sensors; data management and cloud computing have scaled to meet the sheer volume of data coming from these instruments; and machine learning techniques have matured to allow faster and more sophisticated analyses. In all, the opportunity to map the world’s food system has never been greater.
“There is an insatiable need for this information,” Mark said. “Through our work in GeoInnovation at Indigo, we intend to meet this need by transforming the incredibly complex data provided by satellites into actionable information in ways that allow farmers, traders, buyers, consumers, and everyone in the global agricultural system to benefit.”
Want to see Mark's work in action? Check out the latest crop and weather data report from the GeoInnovation team.