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The Growing Applications of NASA Technology
NASA-derived point-and-shoot FieldScout meter The NASA-derived point-and-shoot FieldScout meter can take chlorophyll measurements from individual leaves or across a canopy, providing valuable information for nutrient management of crops and turf grass.
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vegetation in Africa in August 1994 NASA satellites offer insight on topics like climate change and disease outbreaks through data like this Normalized Difference Vegetation Index image showing vegetation in Africa in August 1994.
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Technology for scanning the Earth provides a closer look at plant health.

On December 7, 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 took one of history’s most famous photographs: a brilliant image of the fully illuminated Earth known as the “Blue Marble.”

Today, Earth still sometimes goes by the Blue Marble nickname, but as NASA’s satellites scan the planet in ever greater resolutions, it is often the amount of green that gets researchers’ attention. Monitoring the density and distribution of vegetation on Earth provides a means of determining everything from the impact of natural and human-induced climate change to the potential outbreak of disease.

The Agency is continually upgrading its satellite sensors, but it is also finding ways to bring that potent information-gathering capacity down to Earth. Scientists at Stennis Space Center developed one such tool that is placing some of those sensor capabilities in the hands of farmers and agricultural researchers on the ground.

Sensing Problems before They Are Seen

In 1998, Mike Thurow, president of Plainfield, Illinois-based Spectrum Technologies Inc., met with Stennis scientists and learned about their recently patented technology: a hand-held plant chlorophyll meter developed from satellite sensors.

Chlorophyll—the pigment found in green plants that makes photosynthesis possible—is a strong indicator of plant health. The meter’s inventors demonstrated that their technology could reveal plant stress caused by factors like heat, insects, disease, or a lack of water or nutrients.

By measuring chlorophyll levels, their meter could warn of plant health problems up to 16 days before any visible signs—the traditional diagnostic method—emerged.

Satellite Power in a Handheld Meter

The following year, Spectrum licensed the meter from NASA and improved it with a built-in ambient light sensor, dual high-power targeting lasers, a data logger, and a hardware encasement with a pistol grip for easy use. Spectrum now offers its NASA-derived technology as the FieldScout CM 1000 meter.

Whereas some chlorophyll meters attach to individual leaves like a clothespin, the FieldScout meter is a point-and-shoot tool that can take measurements from individual leaves or across a plant canopy, making it a fast and accurate way to survey chlorophyll levels in both crops and turf.

The FieldScout meter takes individual readings and also supplies a running average. The user can also log the latitude and longitude of each reading with a GPS device and use the information to produce a map showing the spatial variability of chlorophyll levels based on the meter’s readings. This helps the user more accurately determine the cause of less-than-ideal readings for specific areas and employ a targeted solution to resolve the problem.

Since introducing FieldScout, Spectrum has sold more than 350 units—good numbers for a specialty product, Thurow says. He credits the product’s success to the benefits of partnership.

“I have a strong belief in partnering,” he says. “In our case, NASA had a basic, validated technology that we were able to finish developing. It gave us the opportunity to offer a product that we would never have created on our own. It’s a win-win deal.” FieldScout® is a registered trademark of Spectrum Technologies Inc.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2009.