Farmers can benefit greatly from having up-to-date aerial imagery of their crops, but it’s virtually impossible for a smaller agricultural business to get this data. The YC-backed TerrAvion, which is officially launching today, wants to make it easy even for small farms, vineyards and orchards to get aerial imagery during the growing season.
For $30 per acre for small farms under 300 acres and prices as low as $22 per acre for large farms, TerrAvion provides farms with weekly images. Comparable services, the company argues, cost about $6-$15 for a single pass.
To do this – and to keep the cost low – TerrAvion went decidedly low tech. It’s not using drones – those would be illegal to operate commercially anyway. Instead, it is using old-school Cessna 172s with FAA-approved camera pods strapped underneath their bellies to get these images. As TerrAvion co-founders Robert Morris and Cornell Wright told me, this actually turns out to be cheaper than using drones, as a plane can cover significantly more ground than a hand-launched drone.
TerrAvion believes that as it increases density and brings more customers on board, it will be able to reduce its prices, as it can photograph more fields during a single mission.
The camera takes regular photographs, as well as color infrared images. Based on this information, TerrAvion then creates a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index image for farmers that makes it easier to spot vigorously growing plants. In addition, the company also offers thermal views and oblique imagery, which can sometimes help find issues that aren’t apparent in regular straight-down views.
Unlike other services, which use an operator to work the camera, TerrAvion’s system runs autonomously. The pilot just has to fly a set route and the system handles the rest. The company argues that it could handle 100,000 acres a day with a single plane.
TerrAvion is currently working with two flight bases in California, where it rents the planes that are then flown by local pilots (mostly flight instructors) who want to fly a few extra hours and make some money on the side. For the time being, the service is only available in California, though the company obviously plans to expand to other areas as well.
Both Wright and Morris have an aviation background. Morris led a drone platoon in the Army and Wright has a private pilots license.
To get started, farmers simply use the company’s web-based interface to draw lines around their fields and wait for the images to come.
One TerrAvion gets the imagery, they run the data through a number of mostly off-the-shelf software and then email the farmer once the imagery is ready (typically the next morning).
As Wright noted, the company’s methods don’t necessarily allow it to diagnose the reason for why there are issues in a certain part of a field, for example. It can, however, easily detect where some trees or vines get too much or too little water or where they should use more or less chemicals. This allows farmers to notice issues before they become unmanageable and focus their energies on areas where there are issues.
“Our emphasis,” Wright said, “is on putting the pictures in the hands of the guy who farms the field.” During its beta test last year, the team found that the economic benefit of its service doesn’t come from somebody at HQ looking at the data, but from the person who knows the field. “We view our services as a generalized tool for shortening the decision cycle in agriculture,” Wright said.
Especially now, with the ongoing drought in California and farmers not getting the water allocations they are used to, TerrAvion believes its tools could help farmers save their permanent crops.
For field crops like soybeans or wheat, TerrAvion notes, the value per acre tends to be significantly lower than for permanent crops like vines and orchards, so its service isn’t currently geared towards these farmers. Wright also noted that there are fewer options to intervene with these crops.