Bringing a satellite down to Earth to scout wheat and oil prospects

What kind of business tool is a camera that can photograph 13,000 square miles in 25 seconds? Lester F. Eastwood Jr. was paid $100,000 to find out.

Dr. Eastwood is an associate professor of technology and human affairs at Washington University, in St. Louis. The $100,000 came in the form of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration contract, and the mammoth camera is part of Landsat, a satellite that takes pictures.

NASA first asked Dr. Eastwood to think of commercial applications for its orbiting photographers in 1978. Last week, he presented the agency with his final list of ideas.

"We tried to consider what the technology could do," Eastwood says, "and who it could do it for."

Landsat satellites are very good at taking pictures of very large tracts of land. Three of them are now scooting through space, 500 miles up, snapping shots that can show an object on Earth's surface as small as 90 meters (33 feet) across.

When developed, the color photos show a speckled pattern of green vegetation and brown, drier regions. They look very much like pictures of an overdone spinach souffle. Eastwood says these pictures put land, water, crops, and cities into a unique perspective.

"You can see a lot of relationship you can't see from a plane," he says.

Landsat photos are sold to the general public through the Earth Resources Observation Systems Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. Oil companies, for instance , buy them to help look for oil-filled geological formations.

"Like Topsy, the demand [for Landsat photos] just kind of grew," says NASA's Dick McCormack. "A big area of growth has been state and local government. They use it for town and community planning."

But what untapped commercial markets exist for photos of the ground taken from 500 miles up?

Dr. Eastwood says he came up with 30 to 40 good ideas right away, but his $ 100,000 budget would pay for research on only a few. After market surveys and cost analyses he culled the list to four prime prospects.

* Crop consulting -- A Landsat picture can detect what crops are planted where, how much water there is, and what sort of transportation is available over wide areas. Both farmers and agriculture-oriented businesses would pay for this information, Dr. Eastwood says.

"Let's say Ralston-Purina wants to make a new food product out of corn," he says. "It's difficult for planners to drive around looking for a spot that's close to both corn and transport routes."

With Landsat photos, he claims, corporate executives can instantly survey the possibilities of an entire county at a glance.

* TV "agman" -- Television weathermen use satellite pictures to graphically illustrate their predictions. Eastman thinks there should be an "agman," or agricultural expert, who does the same thing for crops -- using Landsat photos of cropland to predict food production and give consumers tips on what to stock up on and what will be a good buy. Some stations already run such a feature -- titled "Joe the Greengrocer."

* Wood-lot management -- Eastwood's report claims there are a 4 million small wood lots across the United States, many of them owned by absentee landlords who don't know whether their trees are growing or dead. Most of them, the report says, don't get any profit from their land and bought it for recreation or speculation. Eastwood says his research indicates there are plenty of people willing to pay for a picture of their wood lot -- so they can see which parts to harvest, if any, and which parts to leave alone.

* Energy consultation -- Using an infrared lens, Landsat can take pictures that snoop out heat leaking from underinsulated buildings. A company that would broker such information to local contractors could be big business, Eastwood's report sats.

Landsat D, with an even keener camera eye, is set for launch in the latter part of 1982. While NASA controlled the first three satellites, the fourth will be overseen (or underseen, considering its lofty altitude) by the Department of Commerce.

Diana Josephson, an acting deputy associate at Commerce, says her agency's role "will be in the application area. We take already-developed projects and interest users."

Former President Carter's 1982 budget allowed $124 million for the Commerce Department Landsat project. Ms. Josephson is not sure what effect the Reagan administration's laser-sharp budget cutting will have on the project.

"It's not clear whether they'll be more concerned with more global issues," she says.

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