Anybody who has ever grown a crop will know the feeling. You plant the seeds, add in nutrients to help them sprout. Then you watch, wait – and hope. Arguably it’s the same set of actions - and emotions - whether you are cultivating tomatoes in a small patch of land at the back of your house or you’re a wheat farmer in Australia or America with a crop that covers thousands of acres and is worth millions. Those involved in GeoVisual Analytics, based in Colorado, share the emotions of producers who put a lot of work – and money – into planting a crop and then have to wait and hope all goes well from then on.
GeoVisual not only knows about the many challenges confronting a big wheat producer in somewhere like California, but GeoVisual also wants to help them meet the challenges by utilizing big data analytics in a new, innovative way to improve and predict crop health and yields for producers and commodity markets alike. To do that, they use high resolution imagery from satellites - and increasingly from drones as they become more affordable - and fuse these technologies with ground-based observations “to enable major advances in precision monitoring and interventions for better crop-land management and improved harvests.”
GeoVisual Analytics’ mission also includes “exploiting advances in machine learning, cloud based computing, and emerging, remote sensing capabilities” to realize these goals. The GeoVisual leadership team is made up of President and CEO Jeffrey Orrey, CTO Joseph Clark and Chief Marketing Officer Carl Kalin. They all have a vast array of experience to draw on in the fields of technology and marketing – and they feel they have developed a technological solution that can greatly help someone like a Californian-based vegetable producer who is faced with the challenge of turning a vast track of land into a healthy, high-yielding crop - green and pure. Beyond that there is the broader - more humanitarian - reality that if better, higher yielding, healthier crops can be produced than one of the biggest challenges facing mankind will be met. By 2050, the UN has estimated there will be 10 billion people living on the planet and they will need to be fed. That’s the challenge – and the innovative, imaginative people behind GeoVisual Analytics aim to play their part by helping out both the farmer in states like California and Kansas - and those small producers in less well off countries – to grow bigger, better crops.
One of the chief ways they aim to do just that is by using the technology they have carefully researched and developed with funding from NASA and drawing on their deep-well of related expertise. This technology can help producers monitor crops from the sky and automatically determine their status in the field. “Farmers are interested in knowing, when they have large fields of crops, where they are healthy and where they are not,” says Jeffrey. “When I’ve got limited resources I need to send my resources out to where I’ve got problems. I don’t want to waste time going to places where I don’t have issues. Often, I can’t see what is going on in the middle of my field from the outside if I’m driving around it. Being able to see from the sky is really helpful in that situation. “All this is, he adds, tied into the future of farming where more food will need to be produced. To help do just that a farmer will need to be able to respond to potential problems - quickly. “Things can change pretty rapidly in agriculture. If you have an outbreak of a disease or an infestation of pests, time is money. The first loss is your best loss. You’ve got to make a decision early about whether you are going to keep the crop or are you going to spray? What are you going to do to treat an issue that comes often? Part of the value we can add is in an early warning detection capability.”
GeoVisual’s leadership team has a series of impressive qualifications to call on. Jeffrey holds a Ph.D. in physics and previously worked in a number of positions related to imagery analysis and Big Data computation. Before founding GeoVisual, he was a Lead Program Manager at Microsoft Corporation, also based in the Colorado city. “I was working for Microsoft as part of an acquisition to build out their Bing Maps platform,” he explained. “Those were the days when Google Maps was taking off and Google Earth and Google Earth 3D. Microsoft were getting into that space and setting up their own Bing Maps and search engine and so they acquired a number of companies to help roll out their 3D world.” Orrey stayed with Microsoft for four years building out solutions based on Microsoft technology, all the time adding deposits to his bank of experience.
“We had some really fascinating engagements using geospatial information for a number of problems, all decision-support related.” He worked on a major project for the New York City Police Department and their counter-terrorism unit, with the Microsoft mapping platform the backbone of that system. It is regarded as the world’s most sophisticated counter-terrorism surveillance system and is based on photos, maps and videos. “Out of that experience I started seeing a lot of opportunities for taking this geospatial data and applying it to problems of natural resource management, since I have a background in geophysics. I’d done some oil and gas work. It made sense for me after about four years to jump ship and go out on my own. “ He was joined at GeoVisual by Joseph Clark, who was a Lieutenant Commander F-14 Pilot in the US Navy before moving to a series of IT roles. Clark was Technical Lead Manager with Google in Mountain View, California before making the move to GeoVisual.
Carl Kalin, with an electrical engineering degree from MIT, worked for a while at NASA before moving moving into sales. He was the VP of Marketing and Sales with Terralux Inc. when the GeoVisual Analytics challenge called – and he answered. The type of analysis applied by GeoVisual is based on properties of electromagnetic waves in the near infrared (NIR) spectrum, which are invisible to the human eye. While a negligible amount of NIR light is reflected by most objects, plants reflect a good deal (up to six times more than a plant’s reflectance of visible green light). Plants undermined by drought or disease will show a reduction in NIR reflectance. “If the first tech revolution for agriculture was the green revolution, nitrogen, and now we are realizing that the sustainability of soils and ecosystems can’t support such intensive chemical agriculture, the current tech revolution is the opportunity to address that,” says Jeffrey.
“So we are seeing an evolution beyond that and I think the next evolution we are seeing now is this ability to understand what is going on all over the farm.” GeoVisual Analytics was originally funded through a series of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from NASA to analyze satellite data for global forests and agriculture monitoring. It was something of a logical step to move on to analyze crops and in so doing help to solve one of the biggest challenges facing mankind - producing more food for a steadily-growing population. They were also greatly helped when they became a finalist in the renowned THRIVE Accelerator program supported by Silicon Valley Global and Forbes. Not only was GeoVisual Analytics selected as a finalist from over 200 applicants from 35 countries for this year’s THRIVE program, but they also won the pitch competition at the Western Growers Association’s annual meeting late last year – the 2500-member trade organization representing fresh fruit and vegetable producers in the western US.
Western Growers is a partner in THRIVE. It was a huge boost to the company as they sought to consolidate their presence in the agritech space. Each company’s final pitch was scored by a diverse group of senior judges drawn from the agriculture and technology sectors, financial and investment groups and universities. “We didn’t come from an agricultural background even though there’s a lot of agriculture in Colorado,” added Orrey. “THRIVE helped us get traction with larger clients. Any industry where you are introducing new technology, the adoption process is slow. We are making solid progress now. We have been able to run trials where we have been very interactive with the customers. We are learning what they need. They are also learning what they can do with new technology when the capabilities were not there before. “
Those capabilities include determining what the yields are likely to be when all factors are considered. In this way a producer can plan ahead and start managing possibilities such as a glut in the market. So far those involved in agriculture have shown a huge interest in what GeoVisual Analytics has to offer, says Jeffrey Orrey – and this can only be good for business. For the CEO of GeoVisual Analytics and others involved in the business it’s about working with a wide range of people to meet the challenges of the future.
“Farmers have told us, and this goes towards where our solution fits in, that basically they have a factory with no roof. They are at the whim of the weather and outbreaks of pests and outbreaks of diseases as well as problems like weeds and labor challenges. “They have all these factors and challenges and they are still expected to meet the contracts they enter into with major retail stores. We have come to expect to have access, 365 days a year, to fresh, leafy greens and tomatoes. Just meeting that supply and demand is an increasing a challenge.”