Jan 24, 2020
New York invests in drone pollination startup

Dropcopter, a startup company pitching precision pollination of fruits and vegetables by drone, recently earned a half a million dollars from New York state, which is investing in agriculture.

Grow-NY, an agricultural business pitch competition sponsored by the state, played out in November. Dropcopter was in the top three funded companies – second only to a restaurant promotion company called RealEats – and the only one in the top three that focused on farm operations.

“The goal is to increase that fruit set as much as possible, especially during cold periods, when it’s hard to pollinate,” said co-founder Adam Fine. “Bees don’t fly in the cold, and they don’t fly at nighttime, so that’s difficult, when you have a bloom period, to set a good crop.”

Dropcopter uses six-rotor drone to drop precise amounts of pollen in fields or orchards. According to the founders, the technology aims at better fruit set, pollination that’s not as reliant on cold weather-adverse honeybees, and specific crosses. Although the Federal Aviation Administration requires the company to have a licensed drone pilot on location, to intervene in case something goes wrong, the drones are developed to fly without any remote human control.

“It is pre-programmed with its flight pattern in all three dimensions,” said partner Michael Winch. Farm-specific flight patterns, or “missions” for pollen dispersal, are developed with the assistance of software and public data, he said.

While the product isn’t yet commercially available, Winch said “we’re capable of flying missions right now.”

The three partners have already come a long way in developing their company. Fine, the son of a chef, was working on a drone food delivery project before meeting up with Koball and turning to agriculture. Matt Koball has an electronics degree, but as a former olive grower, he knew of the value of pollen and that growers in some countries will even set out trays of pollen in front of bee hives. Winch has experience working in the software industry.

Dropcopter was established in 2014, with its first flights taking place in 2015. For three years, the group worked on almonds. Then, in 2018, Fine moved to New York in conjunction with another pitch program, Genius NY, in which Dropcopter was a finalist.

Dropcopter’s founders are very interested in vine crops such as squash and seed crops.

“The seed crops are what we refer to as vegetables, broccolis, other things like that,” Koball said. Crops like broccoli and sunflowers use a high concentration of bees, and require putting in a non-bearing row of male plants every third row. Since the male plants take productivity away from the ground, seed crops are of much interest to Dropcopter as a potential market.

However, it’s apples, cherries and almonds that are Dropcopter’s “bread and butter,” Fine said. “We’ve got independent studies on all three of those now.”

In New York, they continue to partner with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Ontario Fruit Program for research.

“We’ve recently signed a letter of support and intent with them to do research,” Fine said. “We’d like to investigate the different aspects of our pollination technology, dial into what is actually happening genetically with the pollen we use, as well as some of the effects of our application on the color and sizing of the fruit.”

The group has already experimented with working on diverse crops, recently working with conifer breeders in Brazil to find a less labor-intensive method for cross-pollination.

“They’ve been doing this for a number of years with people in boom trucks or pruning towers,” Koball said. “We’re able to go down and do in two or three minutes what it takes somebody hours to do in a truck.”

New York state is betting the technology will pay off. Winners were selected on viability of commercialization and business model, customer value, food and agriculture innovation and regional job creation – the potential for creating high-quality jobs in the Grow-NY footprint.

“This latest business competition reflects New York State’s support for building entrepreneurial ecosystems that will now boost innovative economic growth in the rich farming and agricultural areas of the Finger Lakes, Central and Southern Tier regions,” said Empire State Development Acting Commissioner and President and CEO-designate Eric Gertler.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor





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