Californian startup TerrAvion has developed OverView, a low-cost aerial imagery service designed to enable farmers to spot problems with their crops before they become unmanageable.

TerrAvion launches aerial imagery service for small farmers


Major agricultural firms nowadays make use of aerial imagery to manage their fields, using precision techniques that enable them to assess how effectively their fertilizer is working, analyze yields in order to take key decisions, plan irrigation in a precise fashion, and so on. This approach helps the farm managers to identify anomalies before they become unmanageable and to focus their efforts on problem areas. However, obtaining data via aerial imagery has hitherto been beyond the pockets of smaller farmers. Now TerrAvion, with backing from Mountain View-based seed accelerator Y Combinator, is looking to make the necessary technology available to growers running small holdings, orchards and wineries. In contrast to the incumbent market players, the company has geared its OverView image and data-providing system specifically to target these small-scale farmers at much lower cost.

A service for small farmers

The cameras TerrAvion uses on its planes take traditional color pictures and infrared photos. Based on this information, the company then creates a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) image that makes it easierfor farmers to judge how their crops are progressing. In addition, they are provided with thermal imaging and oblique shots, which can often add useful information. The company provides its clients with 30 images on a weekly basis during the growing season, calculating the price for its service according to the surface area to be monitored.  TerrAvion charges $30 an acre (2.5 acres equals 1 hectare) for a farm of less than 300 acres, but this drops as low as $22 per acre for large farms.  The OverView system is set up to run autonomously. The pilot just has to fly the planned route and the system handles the rest. To get started, farmers simply need to use the company’s web-based interface to draw lines around the perimeter of the field(s) they want to monitor and wait for the images to arrive by email.

Low-cost strategy

In order to attract small farmers TerrAvion is using low-cost technology andkeeping its prices low. The company is using old-fashioned Cessna 172 planes with US Federal Aviation Administration-approved camera pods strapped underneath their bellies to obtain the pictures. Co-founder Robert Morris reckons that the system will cost even less than using unmanned drones, which are in any case currently not authorized to carry out commercial operations.  Moreover, TerrAvion believes that as it increases density and brings more customers on board, it will be able to reduce its prices, as it will then be able to photograph more fields during a single mission, and a singleplane is capable of covering 100,000 acres per day. However, legislation on the use of drones due to be enacted by 2015 could jeopardize TerrAvion’s business model. The company is currently working from two flight bases in California, where it rents the planes and has them flown by local pilots looking to get in a few extra flying hours. For the time being, the service is only available in California, though the company plans to expand to other regions as well. For field crops like soybeans or wheat, the value per acre tends to be significantly lower than for permanent stock such as vines and orchards, so its service is not currently aimed at these farmers. 

By Manon Garnier