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ERMES Report Summary

Project ID: 606983
Funded under: FP7-SPACE
Country: Italy

Periodic Report Summary 2 - ERMES (ERMES: An Earth obseRvation Model based RicE information Service)

Project Context and Objectives:
The agricultural sector is currently facing several important challenges due to factors such as increasing worldwide food demand, increasing price competition due to effects of market globalization and food price volatility, and the needs for more environmentally and economically sustainable farming systems in developed countries. In this context, availability of high-quality information concerning the spatial and temporal variability of distribution and status of crops is of paramount importance to perform regional/continental scale monitoring and support innovative solutions at local/farm scale, focused on improving productivity and reducing costs whilst minimizing environmental impacts. This kind of information can nowadays be derived from the integration of high-quality geo-spatial data (e.g., remotely sensed images, meteorological data) - fundamental to monitor both the main seasonal drivers of crop growth and the overall crop status -, detailed, in-situ user-collected data, and crop modelling solutions able to simulate and forecast the effects of environmental conditions on crop development and final yield.

The ERMES project (An Earth obseRvation Model based RicE information Service) aimed at developing methods and tools to create and disseminate added-value information for the rice farming sector, based on the integration of optical and satellite remote sensing data from several sources, crop models and in-situ data collected by end-users. ERMES wanted also to explore the possibilities offered by the European COPERNICUS programme ( for development of operational services based on free-of-charge Earth Observation (EO) data (e.g., Proba-V, Sentinel-1/2A). Additionally, ERMES aimed at tightly integrating its crop modelling solutions within a structured data flow.

In particular, in the European context (where agriculture is well developed and technologically advanced), ERMES aimed at developing:

i) customised regional-scale monitoring systems – not actually covered by existing systems (e.g. AGRI4CAST, JRC MARS) - useful for public authorities and/or private actors interested in small-scale monitoring (e.g., Insurance companies, millers and traders) of the on-going growing season;
ii) customised local-scale monitoring systems able to provide added-value information useful for farmers/cooperatives to support implementation of more rational, economically and environmentally friendly management practices.

In the context of emerging countries, ERMES aimed instead at demonstrating the usefulness of some of the developed regional-scale services for filling the gap of information on agricultural systems (where, when and how much is produced), and at supporting the creation of regional/national scale monitoring systems for food security/climate change adaptation purposes.

Due to the different needs of interested stakeholders, which ranged from public authorities to single farmers, these objectives translated in the development of two separate but interconnected services: the first focused on regional monitoring of crop conditions and yield forecasting, while the second on spatial variability analysis and crop modelling at farm-scale. Both services exploit satellite EO data (at different spatial and temporal resolutions), meteorological data and forecasts, and advanced modelling solutions to provide a variety of information useful for crop monitoring and management purposes. Information generated within the two services is then disseminated to stakeholders using state-of-the-art and user-friendly web platforms, and through a dedicated mail alerting system.

The services have been developed, tested and validated in Europe within study areas in Italy, Spain and Greece, countries that account for around 80% of total rice production in the EU. Additionally, part of the ERMES regional services were also tested and demonstrated in the Senegal River Valley and in the Gambia, thanks to collaboration with international organizations involved in rice monitoring in West Africa (AfricaRice of CGIAR - Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research - and IFAD – The International Fund for Agricultural Development).

Project Results:
Work conducted in months 18-36 can be briefly summarized as follows:

1) PROJECT COORDINATION: Activities were aimed at constantly coordinating the general advancement of the project and guaranteeing a proper flow of information between partners. The coordination team worked also on organizing the second and final annual meetings, and the second Interim Review meetings

2) SERVICE DEVELOPMENT: Activities of Phase 2 of service development were aimed at refining the ERMES products and services based on i) outcomes of the first year of validation activities, ii) end users’ feedback, and iii) availability of new sources of EO data (e.g., Sentinel-2A). Besides refining the first prototypes of the existing processing chains and SDI tools (Geoportals and AgriNotebook), some additional products were added to the ERMES portfolio. The improved prototypes for the different ERMES products and tools were completed by the different partners before (or slightly after) the start of 2016 rice growing season

3) SERVICE DEMONSTRATION: During autumn 2015 and spring 2016, activities were dedicated to finalizing all the ERMES products foreseen for the first year of demonstration. This required in some cases to solve some issues identified during the first validation phase, and to revise some of the processing chains. During the second year of ERMES demonstration (rice season 2016), improved automation of processing chains and modelling solutions allowed to produce in Near Real Time all foreseen products. Products and services supplied to ERMES users in the second year were characterized by a satisfactory accuracy and timeliness. Dissemination of results was performed exploiting the ERMES geoportals to highlight the characteristics of ERMES products. 2016 demonstration activities were also extended to the two ERMES extra-European study areas (Senegal River Valley and Gambia), for which some of the ERMES products related to the RRS were generated and delivered to the identified end users (Ministry of Agriculture of Gambia; AfricaRice, IFAD).

4) SERVICE VALIDATION: In autumn 2015 and spring 2016, activities were dedicated to validating ERMES 2015 products, either quantitatively (i.e., comparison with field data) or qualitatively (e.g., expert judgement, grey literature). Outcomes highlighted an already satisfactory accuracy of most ERMES products, though some recovery activities were neede to improve results concerning NRT and forecast meteorological maps and regional modelling. In 2016, activities were dedicated to collecting field data and performing the second round of validation. Outcomes highlighted the more than satisfactory scientific quality reached by all the main ERMES products at the end of the project.

5) INTERACTION WITH END USERS: activities were mostly aimed at increasing the ERMES user base, and performing the “User evaluation and satisfaction assessment”. Meeting with end users and other dissemination activities allowed to keep the interest of the old users, and involve new one. The assessment of users’ satisfaction was conducted in two rounds, after the conclusion of the 2015 and 2016 rice growing seasons. Feedback was generally very positive at both local and regional level, and important insights on possibilities and constraints for future uptake of ERMES services were gained.

6) COST ANALYSIS AND BUSINESS MODEL DEVELOPMENT: Based on the outcomes of the initial market analysis, SARMAP led activities of the consortium towards the definition of a business model strategy. Two main service lines for the European market were identified, targeted respectively to authorities (regional level) and rice producers (local level), and business options for post-project exploitation of the ERMES services were sketched out. In this framework, CNR-IREA, AUTH, UJI and UMIL reported the strongest interest in further exploring possibilities for services commercialization, and will constitute the core-group for possible future efforts in this direction.

7) DISSEMINATION AND NETWORKING: Other important activities were dedicated to the dissemination of the projects’ main concepts, objectives and results. This was achieved exploiting the ERMES website, during meetings with end-users and stakeholders, and by presenting ERMES results in scientific publications and scientific conferences. At the end of the project, ERMES-related scientific activities resulted in 15 papers already published or approved for publication on peer-reviewed journals, 10 Abstracts and 14 Proceedings of scientific conferences.

Potential Impact:
During its three years lifespan, the ERMES project demonstrated in our opinion the maturity of EO, crop modelling and ITC solutions in providing cost-effective solutions for developing innovative monitoring systems for the rice (and more in general, agricultural) sector. Starting from scratch (though exploiting previous experience of partners), the ERMES consortium was able to develop, a complex and deeply integrated rice monitoring system, almost completely operational after just two years from the start of the project. This allowed generating NRT information from regional to local scale considered very useful by many different actors and end users involved in ERMES activities in various capacities. At the end of the project, the following key considerations can be drawn on ERMES achievements and impact:

The ERMES agro-monitoring system was operationally tested during 2015 and 2016, demonstrating its robustness and flexibility in coping with unforeseen situations thanks to the redundant and complementary nature of its data sources (VHR images from SAR and optical sensors) and products (e.g. operation LAI; meteo maps). This high level of operationality constitutes in our opinion per-se a significant demonstration of the quality of the job conducted by the ERMES consortium.

From a scientific point of view, ERMES activities led to development or refinement of algorithms for crop monitoring from EO data, modelling techniques based on meteo data and tools for information collection and dissemination which were (or are going to be) published both in conference proceedings and scientific journals. So far, 15 articles in peer-reviewed journals related with ERMES activities has been published. In particular, a manuscript describing the ERMES crop monitoring system as a whole was recently accepted for publication on the Special Issue on precision agriculture of the IEEE Journal on Specific Topics in Applied Remote Sensing (JSTARS)
User involvement and evaluation achievements

The usefulness of ERMES services was demonstrated by the great involvement of different ERMES end-users and stakeholders, including public authorities, insurance/reinsurance companies, and single farmers or consortia. ERMES services were used both as a platform to perform expert-based crop monitoring, and as the basis for producing customized added-value information, such as biotic risk and yield forecast bulletins, NRT flood maps, or prescription maps for VRT Nitrogen fertilization. This kind of high-level exploitation revealed the maturity of integrated EO and crop-modelling systems, strengthened by in-situ user-collected data, as a support for agro-monitoring at different scales.

Several stakeholders manifested interest in providing funding to maintain some of the regional service functionalities, in particular for what concerns biotic risk simulation and alerting. On the local side, strong interest and positive feedback was obtained concerning the ERMES products related to NRT mapping of intra-field variability and phenological stage estimation. These products could be used for improving management practices, allowing reducing costs, improving yield and lowering the environmental impact of cultivations.

The aforementioned considerations suggest that the market is starting to be mature for the development of services for the agriculture sector supported by high-level scientific evidence, if information is conveyed to interested stakeholders in a timely and user-friendly way. On the local side, the adoption of monitoring systems similar to ERMES could be also be facilitated by the 2003 reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which re-routes a significant portion of EU subsidies for agriculture towards sustaining innovative and more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.

Finally, although ERMES was mainly focused on European agriculture (and specifically on rice), its methods and technologies can be also exploited for other crops and in other areas of the world. In particular, activities conducted in the West Africa study areas demonstrated that the ERMES regional services could be proposed as a country-level monitoring system in developing countries, where accurate information on crop status and dynamics are even more needed due to food-security issues.

The experience gained during the project and the outcomes of the extensive user interaction and dissemination activities led the ERMES consortium to identify some key exploitable results, dedicated respectively to the European and Extra-European markets, which could be further developed towards commercialization after the end of the project. ERMES regional services see their most promising market in the extra-European context, while local services tailored to farmers, group of farmers or insurance companies are a promising business opportunity in the European market.

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