Drones help keep a close eye on crops

GeoVisual Analytics Drones Monitor Agriculture and Forestry

This post originally appeared on http://www.thecalifornian.com/story/news/local/2016/03/15/drones-help-keep-close-eye-crops/81833442/.

A Boulder, Colorado, software company is making it easier for farmers to monitor and harvest their crops through data gathered by aircraft and drones.

GeoVisual Analytics, founded in 2010, is one of the companies with a base at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Oldtown Salinas.

“There’s a lot of excitement (about the company),” said Jeffrey Orrey, president and CEO. “We’re really pushing … to identify the key value purpose for customers.”

Through the company’s software and aerial data, a grower is able to observe an entire crop over many acres, count plants, determine how many are healthy and ready to harvest.

Orrey, 51, is a former Microsoft employee. He worked in the company’s mapping group and had a background in mapping and analyzing data from aircraft. He wanted to apply his knowledge to natural resources, so he got a series of grants from NASA to use satellites to monitor forests.

Orrey first used his software to monitor forests by air for conservation work. He then saw an opportunity in agriculture and applied to the Thrive Accelerator in San Jose. His idea became a finalist and that led to a connection with the Western Growers Association in Salinas. He was mentored by Taylor Farms and, last December, was able to pitch his idea on the TV show “Shark Tank.” He won and he was off and running.

The company was given a one-year membership in the Western Growers Association. That has connected it with potential agriculture customers in the West. It is working with Taylor Farms and the Accelerator program on a series of pilot studies on how to make GeoVisual Analytics’ services operational.

“We expect this year will be a fairly significant growth period for us,” Orrey said.

The technology GeoVisual Analytics offers is part of the many high-tech services that will help agriculture companies harvest more crops more efficiently.

Drones and aircraft are equipped with sensors, such as multi-spectral censors, visible light censors and optical cameras, among others. The company uses Augmented Reality computer vision, training algorithms to recognize certain characteriztics in the field. These record the stages of growth and health of plants.

“The object is to provide growers and producers a varied inventory of what they have in the field, so they know what they’re going to harvest …,” Orrey said. “We’re getting to the holy grail of crop forecasting. “

It’s like taking the Augmented Reality technology used for facial recognition on the Internet and applying it to agriculture, Orrey explained. There are mobile apps so the data gathered can be used on tablets, iphones and other mobile devices. The data all gets combined with the aerial imaging. Cloud computing is then used to do the analysis.

GeoVisual Analytics partners with drone and aircraft companies, aligning its services and expertise with those firms. It is presently focusing its services on leafy green crops in Salinas Valley and elsewhere in California, and also berries and stonefruit.

Once the company gets a beachhead on a few high-value crops, Orrey said, the plans are to expland to citrus, grapes and mellons.

The company is working with the Western Growers Association to organize a drone Olympics, or drone demo day, at the Center for Innovation & Techology. The date hasn’t been set, but it is expected to be this spring. The idea is to fly drones over crops to help growers better understand the technology used.

Orrey is one of just three employees at GeoVisual Analytics. The others are Joseph Clark, lead developer, and Carl Kalin, chief marketing officer. Orrey expects to double the company’s staff in a year.

He said he will be spending a lot of time in Salinas this year as he and his staff grow the company. And he feels the firm will have a large roll in the future of agriculture.

“We feel like a big part of farming in the future will be automated, and that’s part of what we’re doing with the artificial intelligence …,” he said. “We see it more as evolving from ag, from more of an art to more of a science.”

GeoVisual Analytics’ ag services, Orrey said, are likely spread internationally. He also expects them to expand outside of ag, to such areas as forestry, civil infrastructure and other natural resources, monitoring large areas.

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