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Startup Spotlight: Dropcopter is pollinating orchards with drones as bee colonies decline

February 18, 2019

Editor’s noteThe introduction of this article was updated on February 19, 2019.

Pollination is one of the biggest concerns for specialty crop growers, especially as bee populations continue to decline. California-based Dropcopter is using drone technology to help achieve more accurate and precise pollination of orchard crops with its automated program while giving bees a break.

Pollen-wielding drones with automated multi rotors can dust orchard crops like apples, almonds, and cherries providing a 15% boost in fertility, according to the company. Their technology is also applicable to wind pollinated crops like pistachios and walnuts. For apples, they also report a two-fold increase in the price per bushel, and can cut down on the labor required during harvest allowing harvest to take place once rather than two-to-three times as pollination takes place, says Dropcopter.

“Using the drone method allows you to prescribe a specific pollen variety which has a direct effect on the color of the apples and potentially other benefits in the quality. This is due to the genetic diversity of cross-pollination. Further studies to tailor results are planned,” company CTO and co-founder Adam Fine wrote to AgFunderNews. “We provide an affordable guarantee that crops are pollinated and help growers increase the size and value of their crop.”

The company offers its drone-powered pollination as a service to growers who otherwise contract with bee producers to borrow hives during key pollination windows in the growing season. Prices for renting out bee hives have skyrocketed in recent years as colony collapse disorder continues to plague bee populations in California and elsewhere.

Dropcopter is in good company when it comes to applying tech to bee-related pain points. ApisPortect’s IoT bee monitoring software, The Bee Corp’s hive management sensor-based software, and Edete’s mechanical bee-free pollination technology have all raised venture funding recently.

We interviewed Fine to learn more about Dropcopter and the buzz around bee tech.

How do you describe your product?

We are a “drones as a service” company offering pollination to orchards. We use multirotor aircraft with patent-pending hardware, software, and methods to accurately distribute pollen over blooming orchards. Our service guarantees the crop is pollinated and also increases fruit and nut set (the process by which the flower becomes the fruit or nut) by as much as 60%.

Our technology also allows for precisely-timed and targeted pollen disbursal which, for apple “king blooms,” produces larger, more consistent, and brightly-colored fruit. At the end of the season, the farmer has saved on pollination, thinning, harvest and sorting, while increasing the value of the overall crop.

When did you launch and what growth stage are you at currently as a company?

Our company was formed in 2014 in California. We are now seeking Seed funding and have existing customers on both the east and west coast.

What’s your fundraising experience been like? Who are your investors?

Dropcopter was self-funded from its inception through 2017. In 2018, we were selected to participate in GENIUS NY, the largest and best-funded drone accelerator program in the world. We were awarded $250,000 investment. We are currently seeking strategic investors to bring our services to international markets.

How have your investors added value beyond capital? What do you look for in an investor?

The GENIUS NY program has been an indispensable part of our success. They have a vibrant ecosystem of active partners in a wide breadth of fields, including manufacturing, legal and local ag-tech professionals that offer advice and services at discounted rates.

Who is your target customer?

We are focused on orchards growing almonds, cherries, and apples; however our technology is applicable to any tree crop with an available pollen supply. We look forward to expanding our portfolio to include walnuts, kiwi, avocado, pears, stone-fruit and pistachios.

Did you consult with farmers when developing your product? If so, what feedback did they give you and what pain points did they identify?

Yes, we consulted the growers extensively and continue to take their valuable inputs. They all expressed urgency for affordable and reliable pollination. Bees have doubled in price over the last 10 years and now cost an almond grower in California $400 per acre. Honey bees are also highly weather dependent. Under 55 degrees and during the night they become inactive. That means that honey bee pollination can only take place during a maximum 1/2 of the 2-week bloom for any given tree crop.

What educational support do you provide customers when it comes to learning how to use and interpret your software?

As a service provider, we aim to shield our customers from the confusing regulatory environment of drones in agriculture. The only thing they need to know is when we’re going to show up and how many acres they would like us to pollinate. We handle the rest.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

Our company is at the forefront of the regulatory space for unmanned agriculture. Pollen, while naturally occurring and harmless, was deemed to fall under an agriculture spray operation by the FAA. We have since completed a year-long process to earn a “part 137” exemption allowing us to conduct spray operations with drone aircraft in the United States.

What’s been the most surprising aspect of your startup journey so far?

How very nuanced agriculture is in the United States. An apple grower in Washington does not want the same thing as an apple grower in New York. Learning to tailor our service to the desires of the customer isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, even for a single crop. Almost every grower has had a very valuable observation or suggestion for us. It has been an amazing education with each new crop we work with.

Who are your competitors?

Currently we’re competing with traditional bee pollination, ATV-driven leaf blowers, and large tractor-based sprayers.

Any advice for other startups out there?

Market research and customer discovery is the most powerful tool and aspect of your early stage startup. Assume you know nothing until you speak with your customer. You might be surprised how often your customers turn out to be a different group than you initially suspected.

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