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Originally published November 26, 2014 at 11:40 AM | Page modified November 26, 2014 at 2:02 PM

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Agriculture-oriented drone firm moving to Seattle

A start-up that aims to equip flying drones so they can be used to improve agricultural yields is relocating from California, opening an office in Fremont and hiring a handful of software engineers.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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A start-up that aims to equip flying drones so they can be used to improve agricultural yields is relocating from California, opening an office in Fremont and hiring a handful of software engineers.

MicaSense has developed a special camera that is attached to small drone aircraft and can sense the condition of crops below.

This past week, the company announced it has raised $2 million in initial funding from French technology company Parrot.

Founded by three aerial robotics experts who previously worked on military drones, MicaSense started out in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles.

Co-founder Gabriel Torres, who has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, said the company chose Seattle to expand for its “availablity of good talent and the right technology capabilities.” He and another co-founder also have family connections to the state.

The company’s high-tech camera system, dubbed RedEdge, actually utilizes five tiny, lightweight cameras integrated into one unit, each pre-set to a different band of the light spectrum. It can be attached to a wide array of commercially available small drones and is aimed at enabling “precision agriculture.”

MicaSense has developed software to process the satellite-quality imagery collected by the camera system so that the data can be compared across fields and over time.

Torres said the software transforms the imagery from “pretty pictures” to data that allows growers of high-yield crops such as fruit and vegetables to make scientific decisions.

Yang Quan Chen, an associate professor of engineering who directs a lab for developing drone systems at the University of California-Merced, said he has done small-scale testing of the MicaSense technology. He’s convinced the data collected will allow early detection of stresses to crops, including the effects of pests, fertilizer, lack of water, over-irrigation, excessive heat, or early frost.

Torres said there’s a substantial market in the agricultural sector, where low-cost unmanned drones can provide easy access to expansive fields and remote rural areas.

One looming hurdle for drone developers is the question of pending federal regulations that will govern the use of drones for commercial purposes.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering whether the widespread use of drones in applications such as farming, mining, construction, pipeline monitoring and nature conservation could pose a safety threat to manned aircraft.

Some pilots of commercial jets have already reported sightings of drones too close for comfort as they come in to land.

The FAA is expected to issue its initial proposed drone rules by year-end. The rules will likely restrict the height at which drones can fly, and may even require operators to have pilot licenses.

Chen said he believes FAA regulation is necessary, and the sooner the government comes up with clear, rational rules for operating small commercial drones, the better.

“We cannot simply open our airspace to allow people to fly as they wish,” said Chen.

Torres said he too is eager for detailed rules; due to the current lack of regulation, “people are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing simply because they don’t know any better.”

He said several operators are already testing the MicaSense system both in the U.S. and elsewhere, and “are doing it in a safe manner by operating within visual line of sight.”

“But it’s up to interpretation as to whether exactly what they are doing is within whatever the FAA allows,” said Torres.

MicaSense has some early customers in Canada, where there is “a permitting process with very loose restrictions that allows commercial operations,” Torres said.

Torres said he’s hopeful the U.S. rules for very small drones will end up similar to those governing the flying of model planes, which must be operated below 400 feet and away from crowds and manned aircraft.

The company is now advertising five software engineering openings in Seattle and hopes to expand later.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



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