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JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Many speakers at the Precision Ag Summit talked up their farm roots and how their hours behind the wheel of a tractor or walking rows was their entry point into precision agriculture.
Not Nikhil Vadhavkar and Eddie Obropta. The CEO and chief technology officer, respectively, of Raptor Maps arrived in the field of precision agriculture straight from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While they can't boast about growing up on a farm, they're looking for ways to make getting into precision agriculture a little easier for producers.
"There are a lot of things you can do without making a big capital investment," Vadhavkar said.
Vadhavkar earned a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering and a master's degree in engineering management from Johns Hopkins University before spending five years pursuing a doctorate at MIT. He led a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to look into using drones to deliver medical supplies in developing countries.
And he got really good at building drones.
Obropta earned bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT and was pursuing a doctorate. He's been involved in game development, designing and testing space suits and working on life support systems at SpaceX.
Neither Vadhavkar nor Obropta had any knowledge or experience in food production. But during a conference at graduate school, they noticed the huge opportunity for drones in agriculture. Vadhavkar thought what was needed was an ag-specific drone — something that could withstand harsh conditions and could determine diseases in plants. Obropta thought consumer drones were getting good enough that the focus should be on software to use the information from the drone. Vadhavkar said his partner was right.
"It really is all about software," Vadhavkar said. "There's a lot more to it than just making a good piece of hardware."
The pair tapped into all the knowledge they could find. Vadhavkar was a Graduate Resident Tutor at MIT, and one of his students worked on a potato farm. They went to Maine to study the potato industry. Obropta even picked rocks on a farm to get some insight. Vadhavkar explained that they wanted to look at a crop that can be profitable at small acreages and wanted to stay close to Boston to start with.
And Raptor Maps was born.
They took the prototype of their idea to MIT$100K, a major entrepreneurship competition. Raptor Maps took home the grand prize at the 2015 competition and the $100,000 that came with it. Vadhavkar and Obropta were at a crossroads: Either they needed to move forward with their idea or stick with their phD programs.
They chose Raptor Maps.
At the easiest level, Raptor Maps is a way to organize files, Vadhavkar explained. If a farmer has taken smartphone photos with GPS data, Raptor Maps can organize the files to help them keep track of what's going on in the fields. Drone photos can be used the same way, as can information from the harvest monitor they created. They have data entry options and ways to perform trials or do stand counts. They want farmers to be able to take advantage of the time savings of precision agriculture, while putting their own knowledge and experience to work for them.
"It's as much or as little as you want to do with it," Vadhavkar said.
Raptor Maps has received investments from YCombinator, which provides seed funding for startups, and from Airware, an operating system for commercial drones. Vadhavkar and Obropta are the only employees for much of the year, but they hire part-time employees and interns during the growing season.
For the winter, the two are crisscrossing the country, telling people about their software and soaking up all they can about agriculture. Their visit to the Precision Ag Summit was their first trip to North Dakota, and they were excited to learn the real experiences of producers on what has and hasn't worked for them. The gathering of "curious and practical" producers with knowledge and interest in precision agriculture was unlike most conferences they have gone to, Vadhavkar said.
He and Obropta feel that farmers are more than able to handle drones, harvest monitors or other precision ag tools, and they just want to give them a platform to keep it quick and easy.
"We want to give them a way to dip a toe in the water or they can jump in," Vadhavkar said.