American Robotics, an agricultural drone and automation startup, has raised $1.1 million in seed funding. The round was led by angel investors and included Brain Robotics Capital, a fund focused on AI, robotics, and IoT.
Located in the MassRobotics collaboration space in Boston, which is an emerging hub for robotics startups, the startup will use the funding to further develop its integrated drone system for commercial farming and to expand the team. This is the first seed round for the company, founded by alumni from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities.
American Robotics’ technology is intended to target a number of pain points in crop farming. According to the startup, US farmers lose 12% of their crops to pests and another 12% to disease each year. According to Reese Mozer, co-founder and CEO of American Robotics, traditional scouting solutions are not adequate.
With plans to pilot its first product this summer, American Robotics is still in stealth mode, but Mozer described its technology as a “cutting-edge automation, intelligence, and an IIoT (industrial internet of things) tool to develop a practical, turn-key solution. The solution involves both hardware and software, with the hopes that farmers won’t have to mix and match components.” Specifics will remain under wraps until after the summer pilots.
“We believe that current drone systems are too complicated and time-consuming to use on a regular basis. We are trying to solve that and make a practical drone system,” he recently told AgFunderNews. “For now, I can say that it focuses on automation, ease of use, and reliability. Everyone knows drones have huge potential to improve farms, but we believe no one has truly figured how to integrate them as a reliable tool yet.”
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During 2015, drone technology companies that identified agriculture as an industry of focus raised $326 million in venture capital funding. That was an 189% increase on 2014 as the promise for drones to revolutionize agriculture was compelling, according to AgFunder data. But the buzz seemed to fizzle in 2016 as complaints in the farming community signaled stormy skies ahead and funding for drone startups dropped 64%.
One of these complaints involves timing. Although the imagery and data captured from drones are beneficial, some farmers complained that by the time they received the data, it was too late to do anything about the problems it identified. The limited battery life, which places restraints on how far and how long the devices can fly, also led some farmers to eschew the new technology or to toss their drones to the back of the barn.
Drone startups have picked up on these issues, and there is a new generation of drone technologies hoping to solve some of these complaints.
For Mozer, all of these pain points are completely valid—and things he is working to solve.
“Skepticism with farmers and drones is merited. I think the first wave of use focused on personal consumer use and that has matured to a high level. The next wave is commercial and industrial drones. They have a different standard. They need to be more reliable and robust and have more advanced capabilities. I think that is what is growing right now,” he says.
Proving the ag industry with a return on investment for drone technologies is one of the biggest hurdles that drone startups face, he adds. In his experience, farmers are eager to adopt new technologies as long as the company can demonstrate that it works, that it is reliable, and that it won’t increase their workload.
“Being a turnkey product is one of our differentiators. From an automation standpoint, we don’t want our customers focusing on piloting. We want them focusing on the data, and data that is easy to obtain and interpret.”
Mozer sees other startups looking to automation and big data to address the desire for greater agricultural decision-making and yield prediction, too.
“There are many drone companies in the world, and it’s no surprise that it is a red ocean market,” said Pei Qi, founding & managing partner at Brain Robotics Capital in a statement announcing the funding. “American Robotics is one of very few who can provide a real full stack of solutions for a very specific application field. More importantly, the team understands the business rather than just the technology. That’s why we believe they can define the new standard in agriculture.”
Mozer is eager to share the results of the summer trials once they conclude, hoping to address each of these pain points with American Robotics’ new system and to help solidify drones’ role in agricultural production. For him, the key is collecting data to prove the tool’s ROI.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the ROI is there and once that is proved I think the adoption rate will be incredibly high, and drones will become as important to farmers as tractors.”