Agriculture requires not only a green thumb but a close eye, given the perils of unstable climate and other environmental factors. Just last year, the California drought cost farmers $603 million, according to a UC Davis study. Farmers also need to be on top of their crops to prevent pests, under-watering, and diseases like fungus from creeping in.
Augusta-based Skyraider Aeronautics elevates the farmer’s perspective to the sky, literally, by employing unmanned aerial systems, drones, to provide real-time data on their crops.
“Most of the issues are preventable, such as over or under-saturation,” says CEO Daniel Scheiner. “If you water them too much, that can produce fungus that will then destroy a certain amount of your crops. There’s also disease and pests that can be easily detected and then removed with applications of spraying to effectively increase the yield of your crops. We provide farmers with the ability to get imagery of their farms so they can react quickly to problems.”
Recently accepted to the Advanced Technology Development Center incubator’s Augusta-based program, Scheiner came up with the idea while working with drones during his time in the military. “I’ve always kind of thought about the commercial aspects of utilizing drone imagery for commercial purposes, such as farming or industry or search and rescue,” says Scheiner. Following new drone regulations late last year, he founded his startup to tackle the pain points experienced by farmers — from the sky.
Skyraider provides a multi-tiered approach for farmers depending on their needs. The startup specializes in precision agricultural solutions by launching drones to fly over multiple altitudes and getting multi-spectral imagery to apply pesticides, water, and fertilizers where they are needed the most.
“It looks like a big Google Earth map of a specific farm. It has different sensors. We can look at it from a purely visual range or you could move it into what you call NDVI. NDVI, a simple graphical indicator, takes out the blue spectrum and you’re looking to see how much chlorophyll is in the plants. The more chlorophyll, the greener a plant is or less chlorophyll the less green a plant is,” says Scheiner.
“On the backend, we look at the data, identify potential stressed areas, and then send another set of drones to go take pictures of those areas to be provided to the farmer.”
What sets Skyraider apart from any old drone operator is that their on-site pilots are FAA-certified and undergo long hours of continuous training to perform these surveys in a safe and legal manner. The startup also offers a drone bootcamp for clients and interested parties.
White Oak Pastures, a local Georgia farm, is one of Skyraider’s first customers. While most clients would require Skyraider to bring in and operate the drones to gather the farmland’s data, White Oak chose a different route and purchased the drones from the startup (Skyraider is also a drone re-seller). With their own drones, White Oak is now able to conduct their own operations; then the Skyraider team analyzes the data on the backend.
As a founder, Schooner recognized that his expertise was drone technology — not agriculture. To fill in the gaps, he filled out his team with those more experienced in farming. He worked with University of Georgia’s agricultural department for research and market validation. He followed by adding his COO Daniel Knaul and CTO Brad Pond to handle the business development and intellectual property respectively.
“I brought people onto my team who have a lot of familiarity with agriculture to give us an advantage,” says Scheiner. “We have this really high-powered team, and all of us have cross skills in other things so we complement each other very well. If one person is getting overworked, we can just delegate to another team member and complement each other.”
The team is already revenue positive with a working model and looking to raise money for research and development. Currently they employ a subscription-based model with options for year-round or per-season. “We charge per acre, so the larger a farm is, the longer it takes for us to cover. But we can usually get a decent amount done in a couple of days,” says Scheiner.
Aside from agricultural support, the team also provides their drone equipment for film production, educational programs, sporting events, real estate, and broadcasting.
While they are about 150 miles away from Atlanta, Skyraider has found success in the emerging tech scene of Augusta. With the help of ATDC’s outpost in the city as well as entrepreneurial incubator Clubhouse, Skyraider has been able to find resources, including initial investment, to continue scaling their company.
“The Augusta tech industry is really starting to grow because, if I tried to start this two or three years ago, I would have to go to Atlanta,” says Scheiner. “But thanks to the ATDC and the Clubhouse, great programs are starting to move down here. Money is starting to flow a little bit easier than it was a couple years ago, and we’re actually hoping to get investments sometime fairly soon. Augusta’s growing.”
Skyraider hopes to bring their offering to more farms across Georgia as well as work on a franchise model to integrate with existing agricultural professionals and communities, which Schnier says are normally very tight-knit.