American Robotics Scouts Out $1.1M to Bring A.I. to Farm Drones

Drones are opening up the skies to farmers who want better ways to monitor their crops. But even though flying a drone over a field is less labor-intensive than walking through one, Reese Mozer says that current drones still take too much time and effort for farmers to use.

Mozer, founder and CEO of American Robotics, is developing drone technology whose automated capabilities could take the piloting controls out of the farmer’s hands.

“We don’t want our customers to worry about piloting,” he says. “We just want them to focus on the data.”

Boston-based American Robotics is announcing today that it has raised $1.1 million in seed funding to support further development of its drone technology. Angel investors led the round, which included participation from Brain Robotics Capital, a fund focused on companies working in artificial intelligence, robotics, and Internet-of-things technologies.

Mozer says he started American Robotics after conversations with farmers and agronomists revealed “gaps in what drone technology provides.” Drones are still too manual and complicated for farmers to use on a regular basis, he says. He adds that the technology is time-consuming, particularly for large commercial farms that have thousands of acres and sites that are miles apart. Using an off-the-shelf drone requires the farmer to drive to each field and hand-launch the drone.

While drones are not new, of course, use of the devices was grounded pending finalization of FAA rules governing commercial applications. Those regulations, finalized last June, limit drones to no more than 55 pounds in weight and speeds no faster than 100 mph. A drone must be flown within the line of sight of its operator and only in daylight, unless outfitted with anti-collision lights. The FAA also requires a commercial drone to be operated by someone certified as a remote pilot. Here’s where the American Robotics flight plan gets a little hazy.

Mozer describes his drones as automated—not piloted by the farmer. But when asked if the American Robotics drones comply with the FAA rules requiring that these devices be operated by someone who’s a certified pilot, Mozer demurs.

“That’s another long conversation,” he says. “One that we’re working hard on as well.”

FAA rules do permit drones to fly autonomously through a flight plan that is sent to an autopilot on board the craft. But during an automated flight, the FAA says that a “remote pilot in command” must have the ability to change the course of the drone or command it to land immediately. That means that even if farmers who use American Robotics drones don’t have to fly the aircraft themselves, they’ll still need a pilot on hand ready to take control if necessary.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court struck down an FAA rule that required hobbyists to register their aircraft. But that ruling does not apply to commercial applications of drones. Those users must still register their aircraft with the FAA and they must also receive a remote pilot certification from the agency.

The sensors on American Robotics drones are supplied by an outside company. Mozer wouldn’t talk about specific details of his startup’s drones, such as their weight or flight time. But he says that American Robotics will offer farmers the capability to analyze data collected from scouting flights.

A number of other drone startups are aiming for agricultural applications. Raleigh, NC-based PrecisionHawk, which closed an $18 million Series C round of investment a little more than a year ago, offers both fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones, as well as a software platform that can analyze data captured from farm fields. Though PrecisionHawk drones can be flown by a pilot on the ground, the company also has software that allows operators to program a flight path that the drone can fly autonomously.

Another startup, Neurala, might offer American Robotics some competition in automated-drone software. That company, also based in Boston, has developed software that can make calculations on the device itself, without the need for an Internet connection or a link to a far-away server. This capability is crucial for drones or autonomous vehicles, CEO Max Versace told Xconomy following Neurala’s $14 million Series A funding round.

American Robotics operates from the collaborative workspace set up by MassRobotics, a Boston nonprofit organization established to support robotics startups. MassRobotics provided the introduction to Brain Robotics Capital. Mozer’s company employs five workers full-time; he says that the new funding will allow the company to hire additional engineers.

This summer, American Robotics will continue with product development and conduct tests on crops in order to get farmer feedback. Those tests will provide the company with additional data to support its case for raising more money.

“Like most startups, we’re always fundraising,” Mozer says.

Photo by Flickr user Ted Van Pelt under a Creative Commons license.

Frank Vinluan is editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan [at] xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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