SkySquirrel Technologies Inc. is a Canadian company that develops drone-based imaging technology for monitoring crop health
Q. Could you tell our readers a bit about your business?
SkySquirrel Technologies Inc. is a Canadian company that develops drone-based imaging technology for monitoring crop health, with a primary focus on improving crop yields and reducing costs at commercial vineyards. The unique solution we offer integrates a drone system, specialized camera equipment, and image processing through a cloud service to deliver crop information at the plant level right to the grower’s phone, tablet, or computer
Q. Drones are being used for a multitude of purposes, why focus on vineyards? Is it because you get paid in wine?
When we decided to focus on agriculture it quickly became clear to us that each crop is a separate market with its own problems. Vineyards have a unique set of challenges with how the crops are structured and how this is viewed from the air. We were looking to focus on a crop where we could provide a solid return on investment for our users. Because the value of grapes per acre of land is so high, the solution we offer is very appealing to the growers. Also, vineyard sizes are optimal for a multi-rotor system such as ours.
Q. On your site you note that “Grape producers can experience typical crop losses of 5-8%”. What is the typical positive impact to grape producers when they use your technology.
Some research suggest that on average vineyards have the potential to produce up to 30% more if they were able to manage things optimally. Vigor mapping is a useful tool for vineyard managers to understand variation in the field and allows them to take actions with the goal of increasing grape quality. Another use is for differential harvesting, i.e. where the vineyard is separated into different zones that will be harvested separately and processed into different quality wines. The Imaging product we are developing will allow the accurate detection of Grape Leafroll disease, which is a devastating virus that can reduce yield and quality and cause losses up to $45,000 per acre if left untreated.
Q. There are so many drones on the market today, why build your own? What unique challenges to this mission were you focused on solving?
When we looked at the drone market 2 years ago we noticed a gap between the hobby market and the professional grade systems. We decided we could design and produce a higher-end system that would fill that gap. Today, the number of drone offerings is much higher, but there are still few drones for under $15,000 that offer all the features we would like to offer to our clients. For example, the requirements to fly drones in France, one of the largest grape producers in the world, are quite demanding. Because we used a custom designed drone and control system we were able to offer a system that complied to all the regulations.
Q. What advice would you give to future drone manufacturers on getting started building drones?
Don’t do it…. unless you can offer something truly unique. The competition from countries like China will be extremely fierce. Already they are leading on hardware development and pricing. Our focus has been on delivering an imaging solution and the drone is just one aspect of that. We anticipate that over the next year or two we will find a partner that takes care of the drone itself while we continue to develop our specific data analysis tools.
Q. Your algorithms have to be incredibly complex and I am assuming may even vary across the variety of grapes that exist in the world. Do you have a vineyard at your disposal for testing your products and algorithms? If not, how do you accomplish this?
Absolutely, we have both commercial and academic partners that help us with our algorithm development and validation. Currently we work with partners in California, Canada, Chile, France, Greece, and Romania
Q. How many years of development have gone into the algorithms themselves? Into the drone hardware/software? Into the imaging product?
We have spent two years and a considerable amount of money on the development of the drone and imaging technology and we are continuing development especially on the imaging component. We are fortunate to have found a partner in VineView Scientific Aerial Imaging who has over 12 years of experience in aerial imaging for vineyards using normal airplanes. We have an exclusive agreement to license the algorithms they have developed and they are actively involved in helping to transfer their expertise to drone technology. To develop a diagnostic for disease takes several growing seasons as it requires time to understand the symptoms of the disease in the different stages and different grape varieties and to develop the right imaging hardware and analysis algorithms.