TerrAvion’s Eye in the Sky For Growers, And Now, Ranchers
Robert Morris was a military drone platoon leader in Afghanistan, where he started thinking about the potential of aerial imagery in agriculture. He later became a chapter president of the Drone Industry Association, and explored the idea of setting up a business providing drone surveillance of farmland.
Morris did go on to co-found an aerial imagery company for agriculture in 2013, but he scrapped the idea of using drones. In spite of the “drone hype” in recent years, he turned to a much more established technology to get his imaging sensors aloft: small planes.
“It’s the same performance at one-twentieth the price,” Morris says.
His San Leandro, CA-based company, TerrAvion, relies on a network of contract pilots to capture weekly shots of his customers’ vineyards, corn fields, and strawberry rows. Those images translate into data that TerrAvion analyzes and also shares with its distribution partners, who have developed farm management software geared to particular products with their own growing quirks, such as grapes. The company is now pitching its services to cattle ranchers, whose rangeland can be much more vast than a grower’s irrigated fields.
Morris says drones are good tools for certain agricultural tasks, like inspections and videography. But TerrAvion’s strategy is to keep costs low by cutting down on the time growers spend driving around their often expansive acreage to check conditions—or operate low-flying drones to do so.
TerrAvion charges $6 an acre for 20 weekly overflights for irrigated crops in the Pacific Northwest—one of the regional subscription plans it offers. Morris says an equivalent coverage using drones would cost 20 times as much.
Companies such as San Diego-based SlantRange are betting that drones, flying lower and slower, can deliver images at higher resolution than either planes or satellites. Recent regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration require a certified operator to fly radio controlled drones, and keep them within their line of sight. But as Xconomy’s Bruce Bigelow reported, robotics companies are trying to develop navigation systems that would allow drones to operate autonomously and safely.
Satellite imagery providers are also targeting agriculture as they launch constellations of small satellites equipped with thermographic, hyperspectral, and visible-spectrum sensors. Two growing Seattle-area satellite companies are focusing on agriculture: Planetary Resources and Spaceflight Industries, which just launched the first of its BlackSky imaging satellites and plans to have 60 circling the globe by 2020.
In the meantime, TerrAvion is pushing ahead with coverage by aircraft. The company has planes making hundreds of flights a week at an altitude between 7,000 and 8,000 feet over 10 million acres of farmland in California, South Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Oregon, and other states, Morris says. It isn’t hard to find pilots to do these runs, he says.
“There’s a huge oversupply of aircraft and pilots in general aviation,” Morris says. By working with TerrAvion, those pilots can rack up some of the in-flight hours they need to qualify as commercial pilots under Federal Aviation Administration rules, he says. TerrAvion’s investors include Y Combinator, Funders Club, Initialized Capital, Promus Ventures, and Grey Corp. The company doesn’t disclose its total fundraising or revenues.
Morris says his hundreds of customers grapple with the same problems as the battlefield commanders he observed in Afghanistan.
“Farmers, like military leaders, have too much they need to see to make a decision, and too little time to get around and see it,” he says. “Whether it’s where to send a convoy or where to put water on, it’s the same challenge.”
TerrAvion’s digital maps, delivered to a farmer’s computer or mobile device, can flag problems such as wilting crops, overwatering, and possible pest infestations, the company says.
The planes pick up images of the customer’s terrain in natural color, but the onboard sensors also capture reflections in various wavelengths—red, blue, near-infrared, and thermal infrared. The natural color maps by themselves are a boon to growers, Morris says.
“The most sophisticated agronomic instrument in existence is still the farmer’s eye,” he says. Customers can scan for changes in the landscape and plant life from week to week, and zoom in on an image to scrutinize individual fields.
Technology enhances that human knack for pattern recognition. TerrAvion’s OverView images can be mined for data used to quantify the amount of live green vegetation in a stretch of land. Plant leaves absorb most light in the visible spectrum, but reflect most near-infrared light. TerrAvion’s sensors measure the reflected light at different wavelengths over the terrain. From this data, it can calculate a ratio called the NDVI, (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) and map it over the landscape. A high NDVI, which indicates thriving plant life, appears in blue on the map. A dropping NDVI can mean trouble.
“It’s almost like the heart rate in a person,” Morris says. “When that falls, you want to know why.”
TerrAvion also maps thermal infrared light from the landscape, which helps farmers evaluate a crop’s water use and the need for irrigation, Morris says.
The company has an open API so it can share data with partners such as Oakland, CA-based Fruition Sciences, a data analytics company specializing in viticulture—the art of growing grapes for wine-making.
Other partners are Novato, CA-based Ranch Systems, which provides software and sensors to monitor field conditions to help manage growing operations; and CHS Inc., a big Great Plains farmer cooperative based in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, which signed an agreement in August to offer TerrAvion’s services to its customers.
TerrAvion has also been working with PastureMap, which helps cattle ranchers use digital tools to manage their herds and rangeland. It has started to sign up some ranchers as customers, including the 1,800-acre beef cattle operation TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, CA. The aerial imaging company is hoping to attract more rangeland accounts.
Morris says ranchers have many of the same concerns as crop growers. Cattle ranchers are essentially farmers of grass, the food for their herds, he says. TerrAvion’s images and data help ranchers decide where to locate their cattle to avoid overgrazed areas, and perhaps also use the animals to control weeds in areas where the forage is rich.
“You can see all that from your kitchen table over coffee,” Morris says.