New planes needed to monitor agriculture

By Chang Feng-lin 張豐麟  / 

Wed, Aug 21, 2019 - Page 8

Media reports last week revealed that satellite imagery used by the Council of Agriculture to monitor crop growth was sourced from a Chinese firm through a Taiwanese intermediary, resulting in widespread criticism of the council.

The council’s tender was won by a Taiwanese firm, but the images were supplied by Guangdong-based Orbita Aerospace Science and Technology and taken by China’s Zhuhai-1 remote sensing satellite.

The intention was to gain real-time understanding of supply and demand in the agricultural sector.

However, from a military strategic perspective, the government has spent large sums of money to give a Chinese company direct control over data on Taiwan’s agricultural sector and the council’s Agricultural Research Institute terminated the deal on July 22.

People should not be too quick to criticize the council. Despite being established by the Ministry of the Interior in 2005, the National Airborne Service Corps is still not fully operational and its equipment not fully upgraded.

Furthermore, the integration of its marine and land-based capabilities, which is based on Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service policy and dates back to 2003, has never been reviewed.

The corps was initially established with 37 aircraft. Today, there are only 15 left in service (excluding the Black Hawk helicopters on loan from the army). As a result of these cutbacks, the corps’ aerial photography capability is significantly diminished.

The corps provides the council’s Forestry Bureau with an airborne patrol, survey and aerial photography service.

However, the corps’ average task completion rate over 16 years is only 50 percent, some years even dropping below 30 percent.

An analysis of the flight time allocated to the corps’ five main task areas — in addition to airborne rescue, which accounts for 25 percent — shows that other tasks encompass a broad range of areas, including disaster surveying, emergency air support for major criminal investigations, ocean and coastal air patrol and rescue, providing traffic reports, measuring environmental pollution and providing aerial photography for a comprehensive national aerial survey.

Almost every activity is central to the national interest. Despite this, a budget for purchasing land survey aircraft was not included in the government’s Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program.

In April last year, Academia Sinica, National Taiwan University’s atmospheric sciences department, Air Asia and the University of Bremen collaborated on research into air pollution in the Taiwan Strait and the East China and South China seas.

When the research group’s leader, University of Bremen’s John Burrows, and his team landed at Tainan Airport in a HALO Gulfstream G550 special research aircraft fitted with survey equipment, Taiwanese academics looked on with envy.

If the recommendation for the inclusion of similar aircraft in the development program had been accepted, it would surely have saved many lives and prevented losses to the agricultural and fishing industries caused by major weather events.

Wu Te-jung (吳德榮), an assistant professor at National Central University’s atmospheric sciences department, said that as Taiwan lacks a special observation aircraft, it must rely on satellite imagery for research and analysis.

Hopefully, the news that the council had to rely on Chinese satellite imagery will focus minds within the government and finally allow for Taiwan to operate a fleet of fixed-wing observation aircraft.

Chang Feng-lin is a doctoral student.

Translated by Edward Jones