Pests. Weeds. Disease. Each preys unabated upon acres of promising farmland. And these villains have very real consequences: increased pesticide use and destroyed crops. Enter Raptor Maps, an analytics platform that employs crop-mapping drones to pinpoint damage.
It’s a groundbreaking notion that won MIT graduate students and aerospace engineers Nikhil Vadhavkar, Forrest Meyen SM ’13, and Eddie Obropta SM ’13 the grand prize at the 25th annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in May 2015. Now, they are building on that momentum to refine their analytics and seek out partners to pilot the technology.
“The entrepreneurial climate at MIT and this award were absolutely critical in getting us off the ground,” says Vadhavkar. He hopes that Raptor Maps revolutionizes the farming industry by improving the precision of pesticide usage and rescuing crops sooner, thereby feeding more people.
“Worldwide, about a third of all crops are destroyed. It’s easy to blame bugs, but really, a lack of information is destroying these plants,” explains Vadhavkar.
Right now, large-scale farmers simply can’t monitor vast swaths of land effectively; maintenance is typically done manually. “Large farming operations hire scouts and agrochemical companies to tend their fields, but when you have 1,000 acres—just picture 1,000 football fields—it’s impossible to keep track simply by walking through them. Raptor Maps enables 100% coverage of farmers’ land,” Vadhavkar says.
In recent months, with a fourth team member (Mike Klinker ’14) newly added to its ranks, Raptor Maps has been flying surveys for its clients in the Northeast, even under cloudy conditions. The prize money enabled a swift launch: The team has surveyed thousands of acres for their customers with crops including wheat, soy, potatoes, and rye.
“Our drones provide actionable information: We can detect crop damage sooner and sell a ‘prescription map’ for farmers, pinpointing the hot spots in their fields,” explains Meyen. Most crucially, drones provide more than a simple satellite snapshot of a field, which can be hampered by clouds or by low resolution. With drone monitoring, Raptor Maps can clearly capture a field’s evolution over time, collecting multispectral images that showcase which areas suffer the most and when.
Using Raptor Maps’ analytics, crop consultants can then go directly to hot spots to figure out what’s distressing the crop, such as bugs or disease, far sooner than they could otherwise. Farmers will typically receive analytics pushed to the cloud within 24 hours of drone monitoring.
Ultimately, the population and the environment will benefit. “You’re going to see far better usage of our natural resources and more targeted use of chemicals, which will lead to better yields. We’re going to be able to feed more people off the same amount of land and meet the demands of an increasing population,” Vadhavkar says.
Meyen hopes to evolve Raptor Maps’ analytics platform to offer an even more prescriptive map of fields, pinpointing not just hot spots but also analyzing how to best rehabilitate them. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what our data can do. This is real precision agriculture,” he says.
Now, the Raptor Maps software platform is advancing rapidly, says Eddie Obropta, the team’s software and analytics expert. While their demonstration drone for the MIT competition had a 20-30 minute flight time, their latest model boasts 80-90 minutes.
“Our analytics platform allows us to provide information to multiple clients,” he says. “For example, a large vegetable processor has employed Raptor Maps to analyze intercropping—planting two crops together on the same field—to increase the yield of its growers. And an agrochemical distributor uses Raptor Maps analytics for an objective assessment of new seed treatments.”
Next, Raptor Maps hopes to partner with state governments charged with mitigating the spread of pests and disease. “Right now, they might hire high-school students to set bug traps. But it will be much more fun for the students to be drone operators,” Meyen says.
Look for Raptor Maps on the cover of the forthcoming Fall 2015 issue of MIT Spectrum, along with stories on many more MIT faculty, researchers, students, and alumni hatching creative solutions to major global challenges.