Canada’s deep agricultural roots are yielding a bumper crop of startups bringing drones, big data, and the Internet of Things to farming.
Fredericton, N.B. company Resson is leading the homegrown pack. It just raised $14 million in a deal led by the venture capital arm of U.S. giant Monsanto. Other investors include Build Ventures, Rho Canada Ventures, New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, BDC Capital, East Valley Ventures and Canadian frozen food titan McCain Foods Ltd.
It’s believed to be one of the biggest VC deals ever landed by a startup from Atlantic Canada, said Jeff Grammer, a partner at Rho Ventures Canada who is also executive chairman of Resson. The company raised $3 million in an earlier VC round. With its latest financing, Resson plans to hire about 20 more people in Fredericton and open a new office in San Jose, Calif.
Canada’s long agricultural history makes it fertile ground for digital innovation in the farming industry, Grammer said.
“This is a strength of Canada’s. This is a sector where Canada – and Resson as a company – can compete very effectively with any Silicon Valley company.”
Two other Canadian agtech firms, PrecisionHawk and Farmer’s Edge, were just named to the World Economic Forum’s list of the top 30 technology pioneers of 2016. (Although PrecisionHawk is now based in North Carolina, it was founded in Toronto in 2010 and still has significant operations in Ontario’s capital city.)
Algorithms at work
Resson uses a combination of drones, robotics, sensors, and predictive analytics to provide farmers with nearly real-time data so they can maximize crop yields while preserving resources needed to produce that harvest, such as fertilizer. The company specializes in processing and analyzing incredibly detailed images taken of farmers’ fields.
“Through a set of algorithms they can analyze any image taken from a drone, a tractor-mounted camera or a satellite. Through the image processing they can actually detect a spot on a leaf in an adjacent field that might be a disease such as blight. By analyzing that, you can predict what a farmer could do to prevent that blight in their own crop,” Grammer explained.
“In the long term, by analyzing the (sensor) data from the field itself and combining that with the image data, you can allow a farmer to understand the best use of herbicide, pesticide, and water to get the best yield for that crop,” he added.
Changing climate, changing rules
As climate change results in more droughts, flooding and extreme temperatures across the planet, more farmers will likely turn to digital technology to get accurate, timely data they can act on quickly, Grammer predicted.
The use of drones in farming has skyrocketed, with Grammer estimating there are already over 50 companies providing drone imagery for the agriculture sector. That’s because drones are cheaper than planes, can fly lower than planes and allow farmers to “pinpoint exactly where you want to look,” he said.
Drones can also produce clearer images than satellites because they fly well beneath cloud cover. Unlike satellite images that are often hours old, drone images can be captured in near real time, a crucial advantage for farmers when weather patterns suddenly shift.
Federal legislation regulating drone use in Canada is expected to be introduced next year, said Mark Aruja, chairman of the not-for-profit advocacy group Unmanned Systems Canada. In the meantime, guidelines and permits on drone usage are issued by Transport Canada.
Drones can generally operate without a permit in Canada if they weigh less than 25 kg, stay at least nine km from airports and fly within ‘line of sight.’
“You have to be able to see it in flight or have a spotter who can see it in flight to make sure it there’s an obstacle or another aircraft (that) you can see it,” Aruja said.
Drones weighing over 35 kg or operated for business or research purposes require a permit from Transport Canada. Fines for breaching the regulations range from $5,000 to $25,000. The number of permits issued by Transport Canada skyrocketed from 345 in 2012 to 1,672 permits in 2014.
American drone regulations are tougher than here in Canada. Although Amazon put its drone package delivery plans on hold in the U.S. after the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules, Canada Post recently said it’s considering drone-based deliveries on this side of the border. That would require Transport Canada to allow drone activity beyond ‘line of sight’, however.