Using AI, UF startup companies boost ailing citrus industry
As news broke that Florida’s citrus industry ended this year’s growing season with its lowest production in eight decades, an unlikely union has formed between two University of Florida startup companies to help reverse the trend.
By combining expertise in precision agriculture with leading-edge aerospace technology, the two companies housed in one of UF’s business incubators, Agriculture Intelligence and Satlantis, believe they can offer a powerful tool to help the state’s growers more closely monitor their trees and manage problems faster.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report last month that estimated Florida growers will fill 44.7 million boxes of oranges, grapefruit and specialty crops during the 2021-2022 season, down more than 22% from the previous season and the lowest since the 1939-1940 season.
Growers point to citrus greening disease that started attacking citrus in Florida 15 years ago when state growers were producing nearly 250 million boxes of oranges annually. Hurricane Irma further decimated groves in 2017, and citrus canker and black spot disease have joined greening’s assault on the trees.
Scientists have helped growers fight declining productivity. On one front, they have developed disease-tolerant trees and are in the process of breeding disease-resistant trees to replace those lost. On another, they are creating new nutritional applications to help existing trees, but that is not enough – tracking the impact of these new remedies is critical, say industry leaders.
“The war for improving productivity starts with understanding the real inventory,” said Matthew Donovan, CEO of precision agriculture company Agriculture Intelligence and resident client at UF Innovate | Accelerate at The Hub. “We need to know how many productive trees are there, and just as important, how many are missing. How can you run a business at all without having an accurate inventory?”
An accurate inventory of citrus groves and other specialty crops around the entire state is what Agriculture Intelligence and fellow Hub resident client Satlantis hope to make possible by joining forces. The relationship could create the opportunity to monitor inventory more frequently, perhaps even monthly.
“Because Florida growers must contend with storms, freezes and acute events as well as the presence of disease, our goal is to shorten that time between data collections and analyses and, therefore, the decision loop for growers to take action to save their trees,” Donovan said.
Donovan and fellow UF startup Satlantis believe they can provide those vital signs — or detailed inventory maps — for the entire state of Florida if given the chance. Agriculture Intelligence harnesses a system called Agroview, the brainchild of UF/IFAS researcher Yiannis Ampatzidis, which captures inventory data using drones. The collaboration with Satlantis could drastically speed up that data collection using a satellite pointed at Earth.
“Our alliance will enable us to develop one of the most on-demand applications for Earth observation —precision agriculture —and we will do it in collaboration with a company that owns an impressive technology,” said Aitor Moríñigo, executive vice president of Satlantis LLC.
Satlantis is a space technology company offering satellites for Earth observation and universe exploration. If it were to point its cameras downward, it could fly over areas that Agroview has already mapped. It could repeat it every month if desired or after a major storm or freeze to capture changes.
"While drone technology can provide higher resolution than satellites, it lacks the scale that is required to cover large extensions of crops,” Moríñigo said. “The combination of drones and satellites covering these fields results in the optimum methodology, well ahead of the current state of the art.”
Applying AI technology for better decision-making
Both companies are deeply rooted in science, and their collaboration is a matter of exploration and innovation.
“The agriculture industry is already using satellite imagery to monitor crop status, but they lack the resolution required to extract detailed and accurate insights for perennial trees,” Moríñigo said. “The combination of our very high-resolution satellite systems with drone pictures and Agroview software is the perfect fusion of data collection at different altitudes. Add the software that is capable of processing all that data, and we transform it into actionable information for farmers and growers.”
Using Agroview’s powerful artificial intelligence software, the companies could produce not just maps but data demonstrating the growth and health of the trees, including nutrient analysis that informs practical decisions to reduce per-field fertilization treatments, a crucial step in improving sustainability.
“Without that information, the citrus industry is like a cardiologist trying to diagnose a patient without taking his pulse,” Donovan said. “The patient might arrive pale and sweaty. That could be indigestion, or he might be having a heart attack. The doctor must take the vital signs to know how to treat him.
“The analogy is appropriate. If the Florida citrus industry is the patient everybody is trying to stabilize, then Agroview gives the vital signs, the metrics,” Donovan said.
Precision agriculture meets space technology
Agriculture Intelligence’s Agroview is a science-first approach to data collection using high-resolution drone imagery, artificial intelligence and software to report the inventory and health of groves down to the individual trees and the leaves on those trees. It monitors, analyzes and helps growers understand if their efforts are having the intended effect.
Agroview caught the attention of one of the nation’s largest crop insurers, NAU Country, and the company entered into a multi-year agreement with Agriculture Intelligence for what it called “proven, accurate, and consistent results” the startup would deliver.
Satlantis designs and manufactures very high-resolution Earth observation payloads for small satellites and is unique in its market for its specific characteristics of agility, spectral resolution and VHR image quality. It recently launched one of its satellites from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Who would have imagined an astrophysicist and an agriculture leader working together to boost economic development for the state of Florida? But that is exactly what they are doing,” said John Byatt, associate director of UF Innovate | Tech Licensing.
The technology is also accessible enough to have potential widespread use and is already creating a buzz with private industry.
“By providing full-field data – not a sample – and aggregating that with our data, we can help every single grower in Florida fight the battle and, hopefully, win the productivity war for citrus,” Donovan said.
Moríñigo credits the unique alliance to the staff at The Hub, who saw how the two companies could work together to increase their impact, he said.
“To see two of Florida’s major industries — aerospace and agriculture — connect to advance the scientific technology for the benefit of our growers, many of whom are struggling to make their bottom line, is significant and exciting,” said Karl LaPan, director of UF Innovate | Accelerate’s The Hub.