The Future of Agricultural Monitoring is Here – Interview with Brendan Carroll of Skycision

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It is well accepted that drones are going to be a big part of agriculture from here on out. There are many options on the market for farmers looking to make use of drone technology to monitor crop health. Foremost among these is Skycision, creators of a software program to allow drones to collect multispectral imagery of farm fields. I had a chance to talk with Brendan Carroll, founder of Skycision, to learn more about what exactly it is they offer, and what makes them leaders of their, ahem, field.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How did you get into drones?

My background was as an IT Advisory Consultant for a Big 4 Firm, Ernst & Young,  where I worked over a number of large corporate accounts, and I eventually transitioned into a career working for a large Investment Bank in New York, Credit Suisse. Amidst my work in the Financial Services industry, I had gone back to school for my Masters at Carnegie Mellon, the #1 ranked Information Systems program in the country.

My degree at CMU had strong core competencies in Data Analytics, and in my final semester I took a course in Entrepreneurship for High Growth companies taught by a local VC. At the time, there was a lot of buzz in the air about the capability for Amazon to leverage drones in delivery capacity. Intrigued, I began exploring drone delivery for pharmaceutical products to rural customers that did not have access to amenities so many enjoy in the city, and quickly became completely absorbed with the potential of drones for commercial applications in the enterprise.

The idea was ahead of its time and was a logistics nightmare at that point in time. However, in the customer discovery process, many of the people we spoke with were farmers. We realized they had bigger problems that included losing crop yield to undetected threats, environmental regulations that were strictly enforced, and antiquated software systems. I knew the application for drones in rural America was not within pharmaceutical delivery, but within aerial monitoring for the agriculture industry.

The pivot commenced, the genesis of Skycision was had, and we’ve been working at helping our farmers ever since.

 

What is Skycision? How does it work?

Skycision provides a service to farmers that helps them turn any off-the-shelf DJI drone into a field scout’s favorite tool in detecting areas of crop stress.

We’ve created a mobile flight planning application that creates flight plans for our farmers’ fields. Depending on the type of sensor and altitude the drone is flying at, the camera is told when and where to take photographs by the application, so the farmer doesn’t have to do any work. Those photos are uploaded to our web platform, calibrated, and stitched into one georeferenced map showing farmers a bird’s eye view of their fields, as well as identifying areas of crop stress.

What problem in the drone/agriculture industry are you a solution for? What advantages do you offer compared to other competitors?

In the U.S. today, farmers average a loss of approximately 6% of their crops annually due to undetected threats such as pest, disease, molds, blight, water stress, and the list goes on. The average farming outfit will spend close to 1,000 hours / year scouting their fields, and if done by foot and truck, cover less than 5% of their total acreage. The areas where samples are generalized, are the areas most susceptible to these threats.

Skycision provides a monitoring solution that leverages aerial multispectral imagery in completely covering a farmer’s field in detecting areas of early crop stress. Costs of scouting are reduced, yields are enhanced since threats can be identified and mitigated more comprehensively, and ultimately, the grower’s bottom line is enhanced.

Traditionally, imagery up until recently has been captured by satellite, and in some cases, by plane. The quality of these platforms compared to a drone are highly inferior. The drone provides the quality of resolution necessary for a grower to see his crops down to the leaf level. This is used by different growers in a number of capacities from spotting irrigation leaks to enabling services like ours to provide crop counts. These vital statistics help dictate growing efficacy on a per acre basis and help to extract the total value of an imaging investment on the part of the grower.

Unfortunately for our competitors still manufacturing drones, the industry is consolidating. DJI has pretty much commoditized their platform and are offering it at such an affordable cost point that any farmer can adopt. Our integration with DJI allows us to ensure the best hardware and support to any grower on the market, as well as premium analytics capabilities with our services. Further, our radical focus on the quality of true multispectral imagery has allowed us to extract more agricultural insights from our imagery than any other company that has tried to integrate with DJI. It has put us in a position to be the most accessible and premium aerial analytics solution on the market for our growers, and we’re enthused about the work we have done, and are planning to do.

 

What has the process of development been like for you, obstacles and successes?

At Skycision, we’re radically focused on customer success. Instead of working to scale a 20/80 solution as quickly as we can, we’ve gone the extra mile in making sure the process is seamless for every customer we work with. Agriculture is not a one size fits all business and you really have to make sure that an aerial monitoring solution is not just a mapping solution to find product market fit with our customers.

Every major success we’ve had on the development side has come from an obstacle that we overcame, and there have been a number of them. One perfect example is the capability for drones to cover vineyards that are growing on steep hills. No other company doing aerial monitoring has drones that can fly some of the steep 30 degree inclines in the Napa Valley where some of the most premium wines in the world are grown.

Another area where the commercial drone industry falls short, is the calibration of their imagery. Stress detection is done by measuring the reflectance of different light spectra and their interaction with one another. Well, on a really bright day you can imagine the values of light reflectance are radically different than on a very cloudy day. On the bright day, the crops look as if they are thriving, on the cloudy day, they look as if they are all dead. This is a constant complaint from farmers about other providers, and a solution we have offered that has been strongly received.

 

What equipment are you using? Why did you decide to go with that option?

As mentioned earlier, we’re leveraging DJI’s suite of drones with an off-the-shelf 3rd party multispectral camera. We do a custom integration to ensure the sensor and the drone work with each other seamlessly to preserve the highest standards of data integrity.

 

What is your vision for Skycision over the next 1-2 years? How do you plan to keep reaching forward?

Skycision’s highly scalable business model will enable us to continue to rapidly acquire market share while scaling at an international level. In the process, we anticipate taking on a number of strategic partnerships with key players in our core market segments.

With that said, we’ve been talking about drones, the problems faced by our growers, and how our solution addresses their needs, but there is an even larger macro picture.

See, as a population, we face massive issues with Climate Change and Global Food Security. 2005, 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016 have all been the hottest year on record. Increases in heat have a direct impact on the progression of crop phenology, as well as increases in breakouts of pests and disease, meaning that crop loss has a direct correlation to Climate Change. Further, we’re adding 2B people to the population by 2050 and we have to increase our food production by 70% to feed it. We either have to change the way we farm, or find a way to do it better. Skycision is inserting itself at the global stage to figure out how we can find a way to do it better, especially in economically under privileged 3rd world countries.

 

How do you envision your company helping to promote and develop the drone industry?

While Skycision is a major player in the drone industry, our focus is on what can be done with aerial data collected by the drone. This means our largest consideration has to be accessibility to our client base. Those politicians making the regulations on commercial drone usage have to know the stories of our growers and what they face on a seasonal basis, and how critical services like ours can be in helping them to enhance their bottom line.

Further, companies like ours have to be radical evangelists of regulations that advance commercial drone usage when they are reasonable for the industry. At the end of the day, we hope to be the voice of the 2.1M farmers that dot the US landscape when the US considers regulations for the global agriculture industry. In the future, we hope to be an influencer as later adopting countries roll out their national and local drone regulations.

 

Anything else you would like to add?

If anyone reading this post would like to get in touch with us for anything from adopting as a customer, brainstorming strategic partnerships, seeking job opportunities, aligning academic research, or even potential investment, please feel free to fill out the form on our website: www.skycision.com and I’ll be sure to get in touch to discuss opportunities in greater depth.

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