Boulder-based drone maker Agribotix can tell a farmer when his corn is as high as an elephant’s eye — or not growing at all.
The startup is combining drone surveys of fields, hundreds of acres at a pop, with cloud-based computer data analysis for agronomists and growers.
“It is hard for farmers to know what is going on in their fields,” said Tom McKinnon, Agribotix founder and chief technology officer. “This is a lot better than walking the fence line.”
Agribotix is seeking to tap into what industry analysts forecast to be the biggest market for unmanned drones: agricultural applications from applying fertilizer to identifying weeds and pests.
“Agribusiness is getting bigger and bigger,” said Ben Trapnell, a professor in the aviation department at the University of North Dakota. “Farms are getting bigger and bigger, and they need a way to figure out how the crops are doing.”
There is a potential $4.5 billion annual market for drones and drone services in the U.S., and 80 percent of that is in the agriculture sector, according to a study done by the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and military industries consultant.
“Just look at Japan, where 90 percent of aerial spraying is done by drone,” said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.
The Teal study was commissioned by the association.
An Agribotix helicopter drone — equipped with an onboard computer, an infrared sensor and a camera — flying a little under 400 feet can scan a 160-acre field in 20 minutes, McKinnon said.
The data collected is translated into a map that shows where the crop — the company is focusing on corn — is growing well and where it isn’t.
With that road map a farmer can better manage fertilizer applications, cutting costs and boosting yield, McKinnon said.
“It’s counterintuitive. You want to apply more fertilizer where the crop is growing well and less where it isn’t,” he said.
When McKinnon started tinkering with drones, he wasn’t thinking about corn; he was thinking about Mongolian vultures.
Taking early retirement as a professor at Colorado School of Mines, McKinnon, 57, started a little company called Invent Works.
“Basically we build stuff,” he said.
Among the projects Invent Works has worked on are building a better oil pump, an electric motorcycle and a medical device tester.
It was the Denver Zoo’s conservation program that asked the company to build a device to catch acinereous vulture, McKinnon said.
He designed a drone with nets to drop over the vulture’s nest, and off they went to the Gobi Desert in May 2013.
“It was way windier than they represented,” McKinnon said. No vulture.
“The drone sat on my desk and I thought, what am I going to do with this?” McKinnon said.
Six months later, Agribotix was born.
During the 2014 growing season, Agribotix worked with eight growers in six states developing infrared grow maps.
By more efficiently applying fertilizer, a farmer can save an average of $30 an acre and increase yield an average five bushels an acre, said Paul Hoff, Agribotix’s president.
With a $5 to $6 an acre service charge by Agribotix for processing the data, the farmer ends up with a cut in costs and an increase in revenue, based on $4 a bushel corn, equal to $7,000 for a 160-acre field, Hoff said.
Agribotix will also sell its drone with the onboard computer, a charger and four sets of batteries for about $2,000.
The flight plan can be drawn up by Agribotix and loaded into the drone’s autopilot.
The company, however, doesn’t see a big future in making drones, Hoff said.
“Drone technology is getting better and better,” Hoff said. “But we see them as commodities. One day you’ll just walk in and buy one off the shelf.”
Agribotix has already set up its web platform so that a customers can load data from any source.
“The goal is to be the data- crunching business on the back end,” Hoff said.
There have already been inquiries whether the system can be used to monitor tea crops in India and Malaysian palm oil plantations, Hoff said.
The drone market in the U.S., however, is still awaiting the OK from the Federal Aviation Administration.
FAA rules on using drones in agriculture are expected by early next year, said the Association for Unmanned Vehicle’s Hinton.
“I am concerned we are falling behind in the industry,” said North Dakota’s Trapnell. “It is as if the FAA said ‘gentlemen start you engines,’ but no one dropped the flag to start the race.”
Agribotix isn’t the only player in the game and far from the biggest.
Raleigh, N.C.-based PrecisionHawk has a fixed-wing — looks like a little airplane — drone and a set of agriculturally oriented sensors.
PrecisonHawk started as Wine Hawk, using drones to shoo away birds in vineyards.
The seven-year-old company is working with agriculture departments at Cornell University and Texas A&M, among others to develop its analytics.
“We are looking to provide a service,” Tyler Collins, the company’s director of business, said. “It’s a data play.”
And while Agribotix is working on $400,000 in startup money, according to McKinnon, PrecisionHawk has raised $11 million in venture capital, including backing from giant chip maker Intel Corp.
The Agribotix team — there are 12 full- and part-time employees — is undaunted.
“You just have to have a high quality product,” Hoff said.
Even the folks at PrecisionHawk say there are lots of opportunities.
“There isn’t going to be one winner. This is a large market,” PrecisionHawk spokeswoman Lia Reich said.