The founders of a West Lafayette-based startup say farmers and agricultural researchers have been flying high for several years with drones, but many have been let down after landing, when users struggle to make sense of all the data. “You can have a pretty picture, but what do you do with it?” says Progeny Drone co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Katy Rainey. The startup has created software it says can analyze and give meaning to images faster, cheaper and sans Internet access.
“If you want to quantify crop growth and development metrics from imagery—like how green they are, how tall, how large the canopy is—you have to use a computer, connect to the Internet, upload the data to the cloud and wait to get the results,” says Rainey, who is also a Purdue University assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics. “But information you get from drones is only valuable if you use it in real time or as soon as possible.”
That’s why the startup has created software it says analyzes drone data within minutes at the edge of the field and without Internet access, which can be difficult to come by in rural farming areas.
“[Progeny Drone] takes your imagery and quantifies the information you want on the crop you want,” says Rainey. “For a 10-acre field, we can process imagery in about a half hour or less. You can go from landing the drone to, ‘Here’s the height of my crop in these different zones in this field,’ within 30 minutes.”
Progeny Drone says its software, which it currently runs on an inexpensive laptop, is compatible with any drone that meets minimum resolution requirements. Unlike most systems, users don’t need to place ground control points, which Rainey says are “very labor-intensive” to put in a field and retrieve.
Progeny Drone’s system divides a field into various “zones,” so users can evaluate different areas; for example, a grower may be testing varieties of corn or different pesticides, using distinct types in each zone. Rainey says, because the startup’s software is more accurate and precise than others on the market, it’s especially useful for research.
“[Researchers] are trying to determine the best management practices or may be testing a new product. We can isolate individual plots very easily, automatically and accurately,” says Rainey. “Instead of having plots, farmers might have a 10 or 100-acre field, and they can define their management zones based on the type of soil or some other characteristic. He can track the crops’ health and development using whatever unit is useful, and if he sees it’s changing or there’s some stress, he can address that.”
Founded just a few months ago, the startup has a handful of clients, all of which are private research companies in Indiana. Progeny Drone currently provides its service by taking a laptop on-site and operating the software for clients “very inexpensively, compared to other options.” The startup is investing in and developing a software product that clients would operate on their own at the field site; Progeny Drone expects to launch the software in six months to a year.
Rainey notes overcoming skepticism is one challenge the company faces. She says some perceive drones as “toys” and not tools for managing crops or collecting data. She believes others bought into early excitement surrounding drones, but have been disenchanted as they struggle to analyze their massive amounts of data.
“There have also been players in the marketplace that really under-delivered on their promises, so people are now skeptical,” says Rainey. “There’s been some hype, and people are maybe pulling back a little bit and being a little more critical, because they’ve learned it’s hard to use these technologies. That’s what we need to overcome.”
The startup has earned a $60,000 award from Purdue’s AG-Celerator Fund and a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Program. The startup hopes to grow “organically” without investors by helping clients find meaning in drones’ “pretty pictures.”
“We take [the pictures] and quantify things. Quantifying crop growth, development and health allows you to make decisions with data you never had before,” says Rainey. “People say it’s a crowded space or there are a lot of competitors, but we haven’t seen anyone who offers what we do.”
Rainey says, because field conditions can change quickly, the startup’s ability to rapidly convert data into helpful information is critical.
Rainey says Progeny Drone can also analyze past images that farmers or researchers have already collected.