Ceres Imaging: A Pioneer in Aerial Data

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Aerial view of plantations with orchards

This field is over-irrigated, but that one next door is suffering drought-stress: the irrigation regime is the same, but the topography is different.  You have a blocked water line – but you didn’t know it.  Water management insights are valuable to any farmer, but especially to those in a prime agricultural area, growing high-value perennial crops, in a drought.  

Ashwin Madgavkar had an idea that could help – an idea which became the aerial imaging and data analytics company Ceres Imaging – when he came across some NASA developed sensor technology. He wondered whether something similar could improve resource use in agriculture.

“I’ve always been passionate about energy and the environment,” says Ashwin. “I’d spent some time in Brazil, and Colombia, working on large sugarcane farms. I saw how some of these large farms made decisions around chemical or fertilizer applications to their crops, and I was struck by how little data was collected or used to guide those decisions. And in general, I observed that farmers would apply these inputs with a healthy margin of safety to maximize yield. They weren’t able to get the granular data to customize how much they put on based on the soil type or topography, for example”.

This combination of insights and events came together when Ashwin, then a graduate student at Stanford University in California, decided to launch Ceres Imaging.  “I was originally inspired to start the company after seeing a multimillion-dollar sensor designed by NASA that was being used in biodiversity research at Stanford. I thought it could have really powerful applications in the agriculture industry if we’re able to take that data set and turn it from an academic tool into one for productising farming decisions,” explains Ashwin. 

Today, Ceres Imaging is a venture-backed company helping farmers in the United States, Canada and Australia optimise water, fertilizer and other critical inputs.  They are in the process of raising Series C financing to continue the company’s growth and expansion.

NDVI image - just one perspective for better insight.

The company uses a variety of photogrammetry, computer algorithms and crop-specific models to turn data into actionable insights for farmers.  This informs precise field management decisions – for example, farmers can see where plants are over-or underwatered, nutrient-deficient or vulnerable to disease. These actionable insights contribute to increased efficiencies, improved profitability potential and more sustainable management practices.  

Pragmatic Approach Yields Commercial Success

The company is built on a combination of collaboration and pragmatism.  Back in 2013 when the company started, the term “AgTech” was relatively new, but the potential for using drones was exciting many investors.  Nonetheless, Ceres Imaging rapidly concluded this wasn’t the way to go. 

“We found drones were tough to scale. Drones can only fly at several hundred feet and have limited flight times and payload capacity”.  Moreover, he said it was  “clear that farmers didn’t really want drones, they wanted the data, and they wanted the insights, they want to know what to do. And a lot of farmers that bought drones, would leave [it] on the shelf, or they lose it in their tomato field or have any other problems… so they really liked the ability to pay a subscription fee to us. And then we would take care of all the flights, the logistics, the data analysis and the delivery, and really make it easy for them to adopt it and create a seamless experience … a low per acre fee that they would use to with a clear ROI”.

In fact, manned light aircraft provides most of the data today – “We’re really agnostic about where the data comes from.  It’s all about the right tool for the job” explains Ashwin.

How are scientists able to correlate aerial-captured data to field-based agronomics? Strong partnerships play a crucial role. “We’ve developed relationships, of the data that we measure from the air to what’s happening on the ground, through multiple years of university partnerships. Our partners are running different field trials, where they’re collecting a rich library of ground data. So we have a proprietary library that we’ve developed over many years now that allows us to drive more actionable insights to the farms through a combination of hardware, analytics and data,” explains Ashwin.

Data driven insights pay back quicker in high value crops

When considering the initial focus for the business, the Ceres team looked no further than their own backyard. At the time, California was in a severe drought, and farmers needed tools to help them manage their water supply. Many high-value specialty crops are also grown in California, making the technology valuable and the investment worthwhile. The Ceres team targeted their technology where it would make the most significant impact quickly and planned to scale from there.

“We wanted to start on high-value crops, speciality crops, and then use that as a platform to mature the technology and then gradually go into other crop types and use cases. Now we’re in the process of that expansion. We’re still helping farmers in many of our core businesses around water and irrigation optimisation in speciality crops”. Although they began in water management for high value crops – Ceres Imaging has “developed products for more than 40 different crops and geographies now, including corn, cotton, soy, potatoes, tomatoes and rice. We’re not only focusing on water but also have products for variable rate fertilizer application, pest and disease prediction, yield forecasting, and others,” says Ashwin.

The Future is Precise

Seven years on, there is still a lot of market opportunity to go at.  Ashwin points out that often the biggest competitor is not another company offering similar insights, but the status quo.  Beyond technical prowess, Ceres Imaging’s success is as much about the human aspects of managing change. This means learning how to demonstrate the value of a data driven approach and then building trust with the wider farming team, beyond the initial champion, so the insights are used to full effect.

As this transition happens, Ashwin thinks the future of agriculture will involve ever more granular information for decision making.  Whereas early imaging allowed farmers to see growth trends across a large area to make zone-level management decisions, the technology is moving towards even more precision – even down to the plant level. 

What does the future hold?  Ashwin says “I think agriculture will be farmed at the plant level in the future. Right now, farmers make blanket decisions at a field level. I see a world where farmers put the right amount of input in the right place at the right time. That’s going to be enabled by technology that makes farming more automated, sustainable and productive”.

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