California's drought is far from over — but high-tech companies are stepping in to help.
The state is facing its driest year in decades, following an unusually rain-free winter. California's central valley, the fruit and nut basket of the world, is suffering the consequences. In response, startups are offering solutions such as drones, aerial imagery and data analytics to help deliver water to only the parts of farmers' fields that need it.
Drones and data
Indiana-based PrecisionHawk uses small plane-like drones that a farmer can toss into the air and survey their field with. Some 15 plug-and-play sensors monitor the land. More important than the drone is the data it collects. Using the different sensors, farmers can pinpoint the type of problems they see on their field, such as low nitrogen levels.
The company sees drones fitting into a farmer's daily life, using the data to make informed decisions throughout the growing season. "This data will provide invaluable information," a PrecisionHawk spokesperson told Mashable, "such as disease or stress, in time to make necessary fixes and increase overall yield."
With this type of data, PrecisionHawk hopes farmers will minimize their pollution of groundwater and rivers — because they'll know exactly when and where fertilizers are needed, the company says.
Precision Hawk offers its most basic package — a drone and a monthly-rented out sensor — at the flat price of $25,000. The sensors and the processing equipment rent for $250 a month. Discounts are available to universities and the price of sensors do vary form $250, as the company offers different ones.
PrecisionHawk is backed by the Indiana University's Innovate Indiana Fund and private investors.
Flying farm help
For farmers who don't have the time or money to fly drones over their own property, there's TerrAvion. The company, based in Livermore, California, uses manned aircraft to monitor fields with various types of camera systems. It won't take daily snapshots like Precision Hawk, but it will fly over your fields every week, gathering information for a price that starts at $30 per acre per season.
"Water is one input which we've documented improvements in," says Robert Morris, TerrAvion founder and CEO told Mashable. But, he adds, farmers are more interested in the fact that they're spending less money on watering crops, and seeing better results.
One of TerrAvion's most famous clients is Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Geyserville, California. TerrAvion's planes helped Coppola save $113,000 in resource costs and labor over the course of one growing season. Coppola was able to save one full-time position at the winery because of those savings, the company told Mashable.
A water data terminal
One of the biggest problems the water industry faces: there's too much data about where their product goes, and not enough analysis of that data. Enter WatrHub, a data service that aims to find new ways to make water technology more efficient.
WatrHub is building its data center from tens of thousands of utilities nationwide to help clients become more efficient by saving water, while still ensuring safe water gets to communities. " WatrHub hopes to be the Bloomberg terminal of water data," says Sunit Mohindroo, Chief Product Officer at WatrHub toMashable.
Each of these companies were recently named early-stage track finalists in Imagine H2O's annual business competition. Imagine H2O, a nonprofit, will have 13 finalists "compete for over $200,000 in cash and in-kind services" in its Accelerator program.
Of course, such innovations don't fix everything. Technology is not a silver bullet –- it can help, but alone cannot solve our water problem," Brian Stranko, the California Water Program Director at The Nature Conservancy told Mashable. "The way we deal with our water in California undermines these technologies and their ability to be as helpful as they could be."
The California drought, already one of the most severe droughts in modern California's history, may need better water management as well as technology.
"We need to focus on big picture solutions," continued Stranko. "In most parts of [California], [we] do not measure or manage groundwater [and] if we don’t measure its condition and don’t manage it with our surface water, we deplete our overall water system."
Mike Wade, Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition, pointed out another problem. "The [drought] is clearly a water supply situation," Wade told Mashable. "State and federal water projects have given zero allocation to farmers." The coalition estimates 800,000 acres of farmland will be unplanted or idle this year for lack of water.
Wade welcomes new technology — which, he points out, has consistently improved efficiency in farming for decades. "In the long term, we’ll be able to produce the same amount of food for people as these new technologies are adopted at the farm level," says Wade.
With the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointing to reduced crop yields as well as increased water stress, these startups may be just what the agriculture industry needs.
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