Skyviv, Sunsweet home in on corn
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Skyviv, Sunsweet home in on corn

Companies team up to help bring the benefits of drone imagery to Thailand's agricultural sector. By Jesus Alcocer

Mr Vivatvong holds a Swiss-made drone used in Skyviv's aerial imagery operations.
Mr Vivatvong holds a Swiss-made drone used in Skyviv's aerial imagery operations.

Drone imagery analysis firm Skyviv has signed a memorandum of understanding with agriculture giant Sunsweet to develop precision agriculture methods that could slash the cost of fertilising corn fields by 30%.

Skyviv (SKY Visual Imaging Venture) uses an army of Swiss-made drones to take pictures of vast fields, which are then analysed at specific frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum. This data, which the company has been collecting for five years, can then be enlisted to predict yields more accurately and better identify diseases and nutritional deficiencies.

Skyviv's study will take place on a 10,000-rai corn field in Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai.

For years, the company has focused its research on sugar cane, but the results of that trial remain classified. The intellectual property derived from the research will belong to both Sunsweet and Skyviv, said Vivatvong Vichit-Vadakan, founder and chief executive of Skyviv.

For decades now, farmers have been shifting their attention to managing businesses rather than tending to farms, as automation takes over some of the profession's most tedious tasks. In the future, drone imagery may supplant farmers' eyes and brains, just as drones that spread seeds and pesticides are quickly replacing their hands. That future, however, may still be far off in Thailand, said Mr Vivatvong.

Skyviv will retail the service for 100 baht per acre, but the price drops significantly for larger fields. On small plantations, Skyviv's solution is three times more expensive than that of Monsanto.

"The technology is there, but deriving the knowledge base to use it effectively for a particular crop and area is challenging," he said.

The technology, moreover, is only affordable for corporate plantations, significantly slowing its spread in the Thai market, which is dominated by small farmers.

Deriving an actionable result from 2D pictures is a complicated process that requires years of research and formula adjustments. To produce the desired results, drones must fly over a single field multiple times (at various stages of the harvest), an entourage of scientists is needed to build increasingly accurate models and farmers or agriculture specialists are required on the ground.

Difficulties aside, the financial benefits of a working model can be sizeable. By detecting which parts of the field need additional fertiliser, imagery analysis can save as much as 30% on fertiliser costs, said Mr Vivatvong. Fertiliser accounts for 30-40% of agricultural production costs, said the Philippines' Board of Agricultural Statistics.

The programme can also derive cost benefits by giving farmers a more accurate picture of total production. For sugar cane planters, this earlier, more precise estimate allows planters to lock in lower prices of other materials used in the production of sugar, he said.

The programme can zero in on circumscribed areas of large fields, allowing farmers to attend to their crops and halt the spread of disease. Mr Vivatvong said it is hard to estimate the savings from these two features.

Companies have been developing devices they claim will boost the profits of farmers. In recent years, however, investors have been moving away from data-driven agriculture toward solutions that seek to streamline the agriculture supply chain in more straightforward ways. Data products have a long production cycle, and are hard to integrate with other agricultural tech devices. Farmers, moreover, often struggle to convert the data produced into actionable conclusions, say some venture capital firms.

The Wall Street Journal reported investment in data solutions like Skyviv fell 39% from 2015 to 2016. Nevertheless, firms like DroneDeploy and Airware have raised upwards of US$30 (935 million baht) and $70 million, respectively. According to a survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group in 2016, more than half of large farmers say big data and analytics are their main investment focus.

Large corporations like Monsanto, which acquired Climate Crop in 2013 for $1 billion, are also staying put with their bets. Climate Crop partnered with companies in the US in 2015 and Brazilian firms in 2017 to offer its proprietary Climate FieldView platform in those markets.

Monsanto said the Climate FieldView platform is utilised on more than 120 million acres with more than 100,000 users across the US, Brazil and Canada. Analysing an acre with FieldView costs $3-4.

The hyper-locality of agriculture data makes it challenging for Skyviv to expand to other markets. Like high-tech seeds, imagery insights are applicable only with specific varieties in specific regions, which means the company cannot easily extrapolate its R&D. Even large companies like Monsanto have expanded cautiously through acquisitions or joint ventures.

But hyper-locality acts as an entry barrier for big players like Monsanto, which may not be interested in the highly fragmented Thai market.

Skyviv is the only company experimenting with imagery solutions in Thailand, and the firm will be open to investment after the results of its research come to fruition, said Mr Vivatvong.

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