Growing any kind of large-scale crop can be a difficult art to master. Success in doing so requires farmers to understand growth rate, water needs, how many employees to hire, and how to best deal with diseases and pests — all complicated factors in constant fluctuation.
To help farmers exact this art, Keith McCall founded Bellevue-based Pollen Systems to incorporate science and technology into a process that historically has lacked both.
“I realized that I thought (farmers) were about 20 years out of date in terms of using information to better their crops,” said McCall. “They do collect information in different ways, but a lot of time they do that by keeping manual log books. By adding technology, they (have access to) a whole new layer or multiple layers of data on top of what they were already collecting.”
This technology is added by way of drones that fly over fields of different crops — grapes for wine, hops for beer, stone fruits — and take specialized photos that reveal moisture in crops, irrigation issues, pests and diseases, and crop growth. The data attached to the photos are then analyzed by artificial intelligence and made accessible via any device that connects to the web.
A drone flies over the field of a Pollen Systems customer each week during the growing season, which is March through October in the northern hemisphere and October through March in the south.
By adding this level of regularity, Pollen Systems is filling a niche that previously was occupied only by planes flying over vineyards to collect images about twice a year. This infrequency of measure, however, isn’t enough, according to McCall. That’s because the data collected pertain to something that is changing constantly over time.
“We haven’t run into anyone that is systematically collecting this data on a weekly basis and analyzing that data and having it for future growing seasons,” said McCall. “Every week, we get a very clear picture of what’s going on in the fields. We can look at patterns over time and apply them to what the future crops might need or might potentially adjust to make the crops more bountiful.”
The concept for the company was dreamed up about two years ago.
During the first year of data collection, Pollen Systems was in stealth mode, refining its processes until a formal launch was announced at the Auction of Washington Wines at the end of last August. The company is made up of seven employees — drone flyers, software engineers, marketing representatives — which McCall anticipates expanding to about 25 by the end of 2019.
No stranger to the startup world, McCall ran two companies before starting Pollen Systems; all three, he said, are based on the idea that information correctly collected and applied wields a great deal of power. In the case of Pollen Systems, McCall saw a need for a solution in the agriculture industry that took advantage of developing technology.
The technology that Pollen Systems has designed to profile specific crops allows farmers to more quickly and cohesively gather information that, once obtained and analyzed, can help them cut costs and grow their crops more sustainably.
“A big challenge pretty much in all crop-growing is managing water usage, especially in areas of drought where people pay a lot of money for water,” said McCall. “Through our flyovers we can pinpoint where they’re over-watering and remove water waste.”
The drones also can identify pests and diseases that exist in each crop and track where they are, meaning pesticides, when used, can be applied as more of a spot treatment rather than a broad spray. Tracking crop growth over time also helps farmers anticipate for future years the amount and kind of labor they need at each point in the season rather than hiring what may be either too few or too many people.
As of now, Pollen Systems operates in the Pacific Northwest and in Chile, serving growers of grapes, hops, cherries, kiwis, and more. Ultimately, McCall envisions the company casting a wider net, both in regions served and crops inspected.
The technology provided by Pollen Systems eventually could be applied to any crop — the need to reduce water waste and control pests is ubiquitous. Right now, however, large crops in the United States, like soybeans, wheat, and corn, don’t generate enough revenue to justify paying for the services: Pollen Systems charges $275 per year per acre, which, in the case of vineyards, equates to about 25 cents per vine — about one bottle of wine. The company started its focus on vineyards because of the high value of the crop, but as technology develops and regulations change, McCall sees Pollen Systems’ price point dropping.
“A key (factor) driving cost is the (Federal Aviation Administration) requires a drone to be operated by someone on site with visual line of sight to the drone,” he said. Although technology for automated drones is developed and ready for use, regulations in the United States require an on-site person with a commercial drone license in order to prevent a possible collision between a plane or helicopter and the drone. Were this regulation to be loosened, a person wouldn’t need to be present each week when the drone did its inspection, which would make the service more affordable.
Pollen Systems also is exploring the development of a machine that would collect data from the ground.
“We’re fairly agnostic as to which tech gets us the data,” said McCall. “But there will be continuously new methods of collecting data from the fields.”
For McCall, the potential for massive expansion for a company rooted in bettering agricultural practices is exciting.
“There (are) literally billions of acres of farmland that could apply our technology on a global basis,” he said. “(We can) drive efficiencies that these farmers have never had the opportunity to leverage in the past. The scope and opportunity to really impact agriculture on a global basis is simply phenomenal.”