TerrAvion combats drought with birds' eye views of farms

A decade ago, TerrAvion co-founder and former U.S. Army officer Robert Morris controlled one of the military's first "shadow" drone platoons in Afghanistan.

But when it came to choosing the technology for his agricultural imagery startup in Livermore, Calif., Morris and co-founder Cornell Wright opted for a simpler, more cost-effective approach to collecting the images. They use specialized cameras that capture real-time visual, thermal and infrared views of crops and fields, which can be viewed by the next day through a Web portal or via a map viewer like Google Earth.

"Drones are expensive and satellites don't cut it," Morris said.

TerrAvion's flagship OverView service, initially targeted at California vineyards, uses light planes flying at altitudes of 5,000 feet to capture images every week. That data — coupled with information from sensors or other technologies that farmers or vineyard managers might be using to track soil quality or moisture levels — can be used to guide decisions about irrigation or deficit pruning.

"We basically found that every farmer literally cannot get around to see all their crops in the time that they have to make the decision," Morris said. "We felt it was a relatable problem."

Barely two years old, TerrAvion already has forged a retail agreement with Fruition Sciences, which sells sap flow sensors, because the information provided by the two companies is very complementary. It has two high-profile early customers: Wente Vineyards, the oldest family-owned U.S. winery, and Francis Ford Coppola Winery. It also has some new funding: more than $100,000 this year, from Y-Combinator and ImagineH20.

"Rather than sending viticulturists off to do random sampling, I now show them specific sections and features to inspect," Lise Asimont, director of grower relations at Francis Ford Coppola, said in a statement. "Once I got used to how the data related to the vines, I was able to reduce the number of weekly trips to our contract growers' vineyards. The time I saved from that alone was worth the cost of the service."

TerrAvion doesn't interpret the data, which apparently marks a detour from its original business plan. Rather, its value lies in providing access to the image information regularly and offering "hints" about areas that might require attention. "Humans are not bad at solving these problems, but humans are expensive and sort of slow," Morris joked.

Vineyard managers, for example, are interested in stressing vines — to a point — because it improves the sugar content in grapes and makes for a more remarkable vintage. But there's a risk in going too far, hence the need to collect this information far more regularly than is possible by roaming fields on foot or in a truck.

So far, TerrAvion has just a few customers, which pay less than $30 per acre per year for the service (for farms less than 300 acres). That pricetag puts the service in a similar price range as an annual chemical application, Morris said.

As it adds more acreage to its coverage area, TerrAvion will expand to cover other "high value" crops to help improve yields while conserving water, such as walnuts, almonds, corn or alfalfa. In addition, the team is building out technology that will enable its imagery service to share information with other key technologies for agricultural operations, including Fruition Sciences and Esri's ArcGIS service.

"Large growers, in particular, "Morris said, "have information management strategies in place and we want to support those, too."