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Inside Precision Agriculture With Drone Start Up Raptor Maps

BY Alan Perlman
10 November 2015

“Worldwide, about a third of all crops are lost. It’s easy to blame bugs, but really, a lack of information is destroying these plants.”

Nikhil Vadhavkar, CEO Raptor Maps

And it’s that lack of information that’s vital to a farmer. Crop disease, pests, weeds, and weather damage are just a few areas where timely data can help save large swaths of crops.

As one might expect, monitoring acres and acres of land can be difficult and costly to farmers. Many types of crop inspections and maintenance are performed manually. More pesticides are being used than needed. Imagine lots of driving and walking and note-taking in the field. Hours and hours of work on a regular basis.

“Large farming operations hire scouts and agrochemical companies to tend their fields, but when you have 1,000 acres—just picture 1,000 football fields—it’s impossible to keep track simply by walking through them.”

Enter Raptor Maps, an MIT-founded precision agriculture company that employs crop-mapping drones to better pinpoint crop damage, offering farmers 100% data coverage of their land.

raptor maps logo

Since taking home MIT’s $100K Business Competition earlier this year, Raptor Maps has been working with farmers around the United States to test and refine the company’s platform and to experiment in different crop types.

Their latest focus?

Specialty crop farmers who grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

How does Raptor Maps work?

raptor maps team

While Raptor Maps team has built their own fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS) that can stay airborne for 80-90 minutes, they’re quick to point out that they’re more of a data company than a drone company.

Their aircraft captures high-resolution, multi-spectral imagery which, typically, is analyzed and provided to farmers within 24 hours of the flight mission.

Pending a 333 exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Raptor Maps has sub-contracted already-licensed and exempt pilots to fly their aircraft. They’ve already flown missions near a small airport, working in very tight coordination with air traffic control and following each one of the 333 exemption’s guidelines.

Their ‘prescription map’ provides 10x the image resolution of a simple satellite snapshot. Satellite data is also subject to cloud cover, giving Raptor Maps the climatic edge to collect multispectral images timely during an acute issue, but also more consistently when doing longer-term monitoring.

Using Raptor Maps’ analytics, crop consultants can then go directly to hot spots to figure out what’s distressing the crop, such as bugs or disease, far sooner than they could otherwise.

What kind of customers does Raptor Maps have?

“Our analytics platform allows us to provide information to multiple clients. For example, a large vegetable processor has employed Raptor Maps to analyze intercropping—planting two crops together on the same field—to increase the yield of its growers. And an agrochemical distributor uses Raptor Maps analytics for an objective assessment of new seed treatments.”

I asked Vadhavkar about what kind of projects offer the clearest return on investment, or ROI, for farmers.

He explained to me that there are certain moments in a crop’s lifecycle that are critical, and it’s at these moments when a farmer will see the most value from using a precision agriculture platform like Raptor Maps.

Below are two examples:

  • When crops first pop out of the ground. At that point, the farmer needs to understand how well the seeding process went. They might want to know the exact number of plants in one acre vs. another, where they might need to re-seed, etc. At this point, no satellite can come close to getting data effectively.
  • Wind damage. Wind can cause crops like wheat to lay down in a kind of crop-circle manner. It’s very difficult to see on foot, but with an unmanned aerial system, farmers gain a really clear map of the damage. This is particularly helpful when filing crop damage insurance claims.

So, what’s the future of Raptor Maps?

I asked Vadhavkar what keeps him up at night.

“Rightfully so,” he explained, “the farming industry has traditionally used longer-term, more established data to make decisions. The technology and algorithms are evolving quickly, but we have to balance that with the fact that crops take an entire season to grow.”

And from what I heard over the phone, it sounds like Vadhavkar and his team are making good progress.

“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what our data can do. This is real precision agriculture.”

Learn more about Raptor Maps here:

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