February 5, 2016

AERIAL IMAGERY Using ‘Old’ Technology for New Analytics

Editor’s Note: TerrAvion was one of the companies that took part in the technology Innovation Arena session held during Western Growers Annual Meeting in San Diego in November.  The firm received the audience award for best idea and as such is rewarded with this feature story.)

Robert Morris admits it would be “cooler” and easier to find venture capital funding if he used drones to map out farmland in California, Chile and other places that his firm is operating.  But the fact is, Cessna aircraft piloted by flight school instructors is much more cost effective and efficient.
“We are mapping three times more acres in a week (3 million) than the largest drone company is doing in a year,” he boasts. “We would love to use drones.  They are sexier and it would be easier to raise money, but the bottom line is you have to service your clients.”
Ironically, Morris, the founder and CEO of TerrAvion, based in San Leandro, CA, was led to this pursuit by his work with drones when he was in the military in the middle of the last decade.  Morris grew up on the East Coast and earned a philosophy degree in college in 2003.  That was a time when the United States was engaged militarily in the Middle East in a big and unpopular way.  Morris was fit and intelligent and felt compelled to do something for his country.  As he was going through officer candidate school in 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal became public and the young man was excited about helping to be part of a change in both the culture of the military and the reputation of those who served.
Initially, his efforts weren’t that successful as he twice failed to graduate from Ranger School.  He said he was a bit of a misfit and wasn’t quite able to meld in to the Army’s autocratic style of leadership.  He was a bit too collaborative for his superiors, noting that skills that play well in the civilian world aren’t as appreciated in the military.  Nonetheless, he eventually was assigned to a platoon that needed a lieutenant and his brigade had the fortune of being equipped with a drone.  After some stateside training, the unit was shipped to the Middle East and over the next couple of years, Morris and his team were able to use that drone very effectively to identify the enemy and root them out.  “I am very proud of the fact that I know we saved a lot of lives of both Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers from the work we did.”
He explained that his brigade had a “Shadow” drone, which he says is similar but inferior to the “Predator” drone in every way.  But that inferiority meant that it was never taken away from the unit and deployed in another fashion.  Morris’ brigade, and the Army units they worked with, came to rely on the information that was generated regularly by the drone and could act upon it.  Morris’ take-away from his military drone experience:  “Information is power.”
After he left the Army, he worked in the technology field and eventually received a graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University in a technology-related field.  It was while in grad school that a grape grower friend piqued Morris’ interest in using drones in the agricultural sector.  He relayed that many of his college buddies had business ideas involving drones, but most also involved alcohol in one way or another and were more folly than serious.
The grape grower’s idea was different.  “He was a small boutique grower who didn’t know how much water he should put on his crop.”
Morris reasoned that if a small grower had difficulty quantifying the needs of his acreage, as a grower gets larger the difficulties must also increase.  With a partner skilled in the software side of the business, Morris launched TerrAvion with wine grape vineyards being his launch crop.
Today the company works in many different crops and has field offices in Chile and the Pacific Northwest to complement its Bay Area headquarters.  The company will also soon be offering a product for field crop growers east of the Rockies.
The TerrAvion offerings marry aerial imagery with a software package that creates detailed and geographically-accurate photographic views of the fields under contract on a regular basis.  The frequency depends on the time of the year and the crop being grown, but in general, Morris said growers typically get a fresh set of images every week when they are in production.  He said firms using drones are typically providing this service for $6 to $15 an acre for a single pass resulting in the imagery.  TerrAvion’s open rate is $1 per acre and on a contract basis a subscription can be as low as 25 cents per acre per image.
He said the savings are realized largely through the use of flight school Cessnas rather than drones.  He said there are many flight schools with instructors sitting around between lessons vying to log more flight hours so they can advance in their careers.  TerrAvion contracts with these pilots, equips their planes with aerial cameras and maps out their routes.  The cameras, and the computers attached to them, automatically upload the images to the “cloud,” where TerrAvion’s software package takes over.  Through GPS technology, the location of the images are identified and they can be accessed by the grower, typically on the morning after the flight has occurred.
Morris said that while TerrAvion does have computer programs that can analyze the images using the color spectrum and other technology, that is not the main benefit of the offering.  “We are not in the interpretation business.  I am very skeptical that you can farm from a computer,” he said.
Instead, he bills the images as a visual aid that allows growers to allocate their resources properly.  A grower can look at a photograph of a field and compare it to images taken of the same field throughout the season.  Maybe he sees yellowing in the middle of an area that wasn’t there the week before.  He can then visit that field and determine the problem and solve it.  “No algorithm is as good as a grower’s eyes,” Morris said, but the aerial imagery can replace hours of driving around and checking out those crops.
He noted that some growers have revealed that the savings in gas alone covers the cost of the imagery.  “We are setting the subscription cost at ¼ to ½ of 1 percent of input costs.  If the pictures show you anything at all, it should be a no-brainer.”
Morris said early indications are that growers agree.  The company has had excellent success in the wine grape industry and a new offering to potato growers in the Pacific Northwest has taken off.  In addition, he said vegetable growers in California have been scaling up their pilot projects.  Interestingly, he has found that for high-value crops, like those in the fresh produce industry, growers are very interested in using this tool for forecasting.  It is of great benefit for a grower to have a more accurate reading of his upcoming production.
The packages offered by TerrAvion are sold by ag supply distributors in many different locations.  Morris said the firm is happy to field any inquiries at any of their offices and representative will explain the services and/or point the potential client toward the appropriate distributor.  The company can be reached through its website at www.terravion.com