Society Insights: February 2017 - Space Cameras, Giant Telescopes And Intelligent Farming

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This month it's all about space cameras, giant telescopes and intelligent farming. How did technology used for astronomy help to develop smartphone cameras? What does smart farming mean? And how does mapping technology help firefighters? Read this blogpost to find out!

Size does matter: the world's largest optical telescopes
New Zealand South Island Local Network
Today’s largest ground-based telescopes, such as the W.M. Keck, Subaru, and Gemini Observatories in Hawaii and the Very Large Telescope in Chile, have primary mirror diameters in the range of 8-10m. However, currently under construction are three ‘Extremely Large Telescopes’: the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT), Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which will have diameters of 25-40m.
A telescope’s diameter improves its resolution, allowing it to see distant objects more clearly, plus the light collecting area, which determines the telescope’s signal-to-noise ratio, increases with the square of the radius.
These improvements in resolution and signal-to-noise ratio will allow new science to be undertaken, such as searching for earth-like planets around other stars. However, with this increase in diameter, we will enter a new design regime, with new solutions and technologies being developed in order to realise their full power.
“The next 10 years will see the development of the technology required to realise the full potential for these Extremely Large Telescopes,” explains Richard Clare, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury, who before returning to academia worked on the design of the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) and Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).
“Humans have always been fascinated by astronomy, and the search for earth like planets does captivate the public imagination, however, there are also possible spin-offs of technology that are developed for such large projects finding their way in to non-astronomical markets,” he continues.
“For example, the technology used to develop the detectors for astronomy then led in to the development of charge coupled device detectors which are now ubiquitous in our smartphone cameras.”
Technology of smart farming
Scotland South East Local Network
Farmers are more and more turning to technology such as using intelligent systems to integrate smart farming solutions and taking precision farming techniques to focus on livestock or site-specific monitoring.
These kinds of technological solutions can enhance a farm’s performance by focusing on productivity and sustainability, with a range of techniques already on the market and many more soon available.
A lot of research and development is currently underway regarding smart farming. However, you can trace its roots back to the late ‘80s when yield-monitoring systems were introduced on combine harvesters.
“This gave everyone an insight into productivity variations in yield. From there a plethora of techniques and tools for augmenting monitoring or treatment systems began to appear,” says Dave Ross, Chief Executive Officer of the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre.

Developments have included steering assistance on tractors, to support optimal field operations, and precision livestock weighing, which can closely monitor animal weights.
“Mechanisms can be as simple as an automatic platform weighing system that connected to an electronic identifier on the animal through to a more exotic camera system that effectively weight the animal ‘optically’ via a 3D image,” says Dave. “These provide daily information on a farmer’s animals, allowing them to manage health issues and performance and deliver the best possible profit.
“The interesting part now is the explosion of smart technologies,” he continues. “The development of both low power, low cost, and also remote sensing technology means that it could potentially facilitate a huge change in the way farmers manage operations to efficiently provide the most consistent quality of  primary foodstuffs, prior to reaching any processing facility,” he highlights.
The benefits to the farmers themselves are clear but smart farming is going to also positively impact society as a whole.
“With the issue of how we’re going to sustainably feed a growing population in the future, then it’s important for farmers to maximise yield production etc,” Dave notes.
“Another benefit of such technology is traceability. Technology is making it easier to trace products back to their source. This gives consumers greater confidence in what they’re buying.”
How to map the Earth
Southern California Local Network
During Dr Mike Kobrick’s 45 years at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) he’s been involved in producing maps of most of the objects in the Solar System.
“When I was a lad in early sixties’ Pennsylvania we hadn’t even seen the farside of the Moon,” he says. “All the satellites, asteroids, comets – even Venus and Mercury – were just fuzzy dots even through the largest telescopes but now they’ve been completely mapped in considerable detail; even far-off Pluto!”
Almost all planetary spacecraft carry cameras, which can reveal clues on an object’s surface that speak to its history. This includes lava flows, cratering, erosion features and tectonics. Then by adding infrared and ultraviolet filters they can reveal the chemistry and mineralogy, helping understand how it evolved. Finally other sensors can be used to measure traits like surface temperature and magnetic fields.
Dr Kobrick worked on the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) which used a Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR) with an additional antenna at the end of a 60 metre-long mast to develop an image the Earth’s surface, technology that later was used to map the surface of Venus.
Developing the ability to image a surface in 3D and to see fine details, the SRTM team produced a global digital topographic map, which is archived by, and available to download for free, from the US Geological Survey.
“The SRTM mission was so significant that the mast, the canister in which it was stored, and the outboard radar antenna now hangs in the Smithsonian just above the orbiter Discovery,” says Mike. “We’re rather proud of that!”

Mike goes on to highlight just some of the many applications that use such mapping technology.
“Geologists use them to map faults and measure volcanoes and hydrologists use them to model water flow and mass movement like avalanches and landslides.
“Civil engineers use them to plan road and dam construction, firefighters use them to model how a forest fire will evolve and communications planners use them to site antennae, predicting just what the reception will be at any given spot. Of course, this just scratches the surface – no pun intended!”

If you are interested in any of these subjects then you should attend your IET Local Network's events. They are usually free to attend and you don't have to be a member of the IET - these talks are open to anyone with an interest in engineering and technology and how they will impact all our lives in the future. To find your Local Network please use our interactive map.
Posted by Steve Benveniste on Feb 9, 2017 11:25 AM Europe/London


The IET benefits from having around 100 Local Networks around the world, run by volunteers, that aim to inform and inspire non-engineers to perhaps take an interest or potentially choose it as a future career.

IET Local Networks highlight future challenges for society and look at the engineering and technology solutions to solve them. Or to put it another way they are looking at how engineering and technology will effect real people’s lives in the future.

This makes IET Local Networks not just an important part of the engineering community but also wider society. And what's more, the 1500 events around the world they organise every year are mostly free to attend for anyone - not just members of the organisation.

The Society Insights Blog attempts to summarise some of the key challenges identified by Local Networks at their events that society will face in the future such as energy supply, transportation, water and food resources and waste management (to name just a few).