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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2016  /  May 2016  /  New UK-China project on use of remote sensing in regional crop monitoring

New UK-China project on use of remote sensing in regional crop monitoring

UCL Geography EO Group leads Big Data approaches to agricultural production planning

New UK-China project on use of remote sensing in regional crop monitoring

Professor Philip Lewis (UCL Geography and NERC National Centre for Earth Observation, NCEO), working as Principal Investigator with Professor Zhongxin Chen from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), has been awarded support for a 3 year project to incorporate new Earth Observation datasets and techniques into improving crop modelling within the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) operational CHARMS system.

Funding is £810K from the UK, with matched effort from China, following around £100K by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) during the last year to establish the initial collaboration

Global population and resource demands are putting ever-increasing pressures on the agricultural sector. China has undergone huge changes in recent decades to achieve and maintain food security for around 1/5th of the world’s population, with less than 1/10th of its arable land and water resources.

The project focusses on the North China Plain, a critical region which, as well as other crops, produces 61% of China’s wheat and 45% of its maize. To help meet increased demands, double cropping (mainly winter wheat and summer maize) has been established in large parts of the region since 1985.

Mainly as a result of high water use, water tables are dropping by about one meter a year, accompanied by many other environmental problems. These include soil erosion and pollution, limited water resources in some areas and flooding elsewhere, and pollution from high use of pesticide and fertilizers. Global market developments, global and regional climate change, and uncertainty in future patterns of crop production add to the need for timely monitoring and prediction.

The team’s response is to employ new ‘big data’ approaches, and innovative research in China and the UK, to build and deploy a ‘data assimilation’ (DA) system. This builds on the EO-LDAS framework developed by Philip Lewis with others, (Lewis et al., 2012) under NERC NCEO and European Space Agency (ESA) funding. This will be extended to incorporate new forms of Earth Observation (EO) data from Chinese and EU/ESA Sentinel sensors, employing mechanistic models of crop growth and yield.

The integration will be possible of information from various satellite sources and weather-driven model predictions of crop development, creating a step change in monitoring and prediction capabilities. Outputs will feed directly into agricultural production planning in China.

The research will initially focus on regional and national scale monitoring, but also has a longer term application in farm scale and precision agriculture applications. The optimization techniques developed in the project allow simulations and forecasts to be run at higher spatial resolutions, taking advantage of new satellite data such as that from Sentinel-2. The use of crop growth models will also provide more precise analysis of crop development and responses to different stresses to support improved management practices.

The project’s partners are:

  • The UK consultancy, Assimila, continuing a fruitful collaboration with UCL over the past 4 years to identify applications for the research tools and methods being developed.
  • The Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning (IARRP) of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), China
  • The School of Geography, Beijing Normal University, China
  • The School of Earth and Space Sciences, Peking University, China.


The programme is supported by the Newton Agritech Joint Call, from the UK Research Council Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). The Newton fund is an initiative to strengthen research and innovation partnerships between the UK and developing nations to promote their economic development and welfare



The team