Keeping track of crop health is an overwhelmingly tough ask for farmers, and things are only likely to get tougher with predictions of huge yield drop-offs in the coming decades. With a freshly-inked US$100,000 cheque tucked under its arm courtesy of MIT, startup RaptorMaps plans to get crop-mapping drones into the air this summer to better track their health and give farmers' harvests a boost.

RaptorMaps was one of eight finalists up for MIT $100k, an entrepreneurship competition that invites students to submit business ideas and how they plan to turn them into real-world products. Its drones are designed to fly over farms snapping multispectral images. Using data analytics, the RaptorMaps system is then able to sniff out unhealthy crops.

The examples offered are white blotches or curved streaks in the fields, which could be indicative of damage caused by pests, weeds or disease. Data collected by the drones is then piped to the cloud so that those on the ground can more effectively maintain the crops, with better targeted spraying of pesticides, for example.

Satellite imagery has opened new doors for the monitoring of agriculture, though drones are poised to take things to new heights with better resolution images. Furthermore, they can cover a lot more ground. RaptorMaps estimates that while humans can cover around 300 acres (1.2 km sq) of land each day, scoping out plantations for pests and disease by eye, its drones can cover entire crops in the same amount of time.

"We are making drones to feed the world," says Forrest Meyen, a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics and RaptorMaps co-founder.

Meyen and his team aren't alone in realizing the massive potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to revolutionize agricultural practice. Drone makers SenseFly and Precision Hawk are some of the more notable companies touting the ability of drones to offer a different perspective, with the latter recently teaming up with the Federal Aviation Administration to help develop new rules for commercial flight.

Armed with its considerable cash prize, the RaptorMaps team will now look to further develop its data analytics and deploy its drones this coming summer.

This is one drone application that makes a great deal of sense.

Source: RaptorMaps

View gallery - 4 images