Antoine Beyeler, a computer programmer in Switzerland, took inspiration from insects to develop drones that sense obstacles as they fly autonomously. He’s now chief technology officer of SenseFly, which develops drone software that farmers, miners, and other industrial clients use to produce 3D maps.

Chris Seifert, a data expert in California, is developing software that uses weather and crop yield data to help farmers plant crops and deploy resources more efficiently. He co-founded AcreValue, which analyzes public-data sources to help farmers determine the agricultural value of land they want to buy or sell.

These “precision agriculture” startups are among a new wave of companies helping farmers boost yields while using lower quantities of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Map data is a key component, helping drones fly straight and farmers visualize data in a way they can understand.

Farming usually conjures images of overalls and pitchforks. The reality is much more complex. “It’s become a very high-tech industry,” says Seifert, who studied at Stanford University and worked at Google before launching AcreValue. “Recently, a picture of someone’s tractor got posted on Reddit, and there are four or five different screens in that photo,” he says, including precision-planting monitors and tablets for Web browsing.

AcreValue collects data from government sources, compiles and analyzes them, and presents them on top of the map. It uses Google Maps JavaScript API and the Google Maps Static Maps API to build a satellite image-viewing tool with which “farmers can recognize the fields more easily,” Seifert says.

The result is that farmers who want to buy or sell land can find “a very Zillow type of experience” at AcreValue, Seifert says.

“If you’re running a very, very large business, and you’re running that business in an Excel spreadsheet, you’re missing out on a lot of the spatial detail you might be getting if you can have a map view,” he adds. “That sort of transparency into what’s happening in your operations is a huge benefit.”

According to San Francisco agricultural-technology company Granular, which acquired AcreValue earlier this year, agriculture worldwide is a $3 trillion industry. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that agriculture will make up most of the market for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, once the FAA legalizes them. Many small farmers are already using inexpensive drones to survey their land.
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Because drones can fly to specific patches of a crop much more quickly than tractors can drive, says Ken Giles, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California at Davis, they enable farmers to observe how weather or pest conditions develop before spraying pesticides or applying fertilizer.

“If you’ve got a vehicle (that can) do a targeted spray, then you don’t have to think ahead as much,” Giles says. UAVs “allow us to be more intelligent about our use.”

Using map data, farmers can program precise courses for their drones to fly to survey their fields. Heat maps developed from drone photography help farmers visualize water use, disease outbreaks, and plant health statistics.

Like Seifert, Swiss drone engineer Beyeler is targeting midsize to large farms with his company, SenseFly. Its software, which incorporates Google Maps data, enables farmers to draw a drone’s flight path, then track and update it on the fly. SenseFly’s standard interchange formats, such as GeoTIFF, KML, and shapefiles, help different systems communicate with each other, Beyeler says.

Using its built-in GPS technology, a SenseFly drone makes several passes over a crop to take photos and gather data. SenseFly’s software then uses the information to develop a high-resolution “normalized difference vegetation map” of chlorophyll presence, a key indicator of plant health.

Self-driving tractors, also gaining in popularity, can then use the vegetation map to determine how much fertilizer to dispense.

“The farmer can see things he can’t see with the naked eye,” Beyeler says.

When Beyeler launched SenseFly in 2009, “drones hadn’t been seen so much in the private world, only in the military world,” he says. “We wanted to democratize the drone technology for civilian populations.”

“We have drones. What should we do with them?” Beyeler asked. And his company was born.