Podcast: 15. Mike Winn – DroneDeploy Makes Insight from the Sky Simple
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Every precision ag meeting and conference I’ve been to has included at least one break-out session on drones. Along with all the excitement about this new technology came pain points around trying to make it work and scale for commercial agriculture. On our farm alone, it was no easy task figuring out how to create the flight path, stitch together hundreds of images to make one image of a field, and then making it work with existing software and data. In Episode 15 of Precision Points, though, Mike Winn – founder of DroneDeploy – walks us through how agriculture has shifted from that lengthy process to a simple-to-use platform that increases the measurable data we can extract from our flights.
Starting back in 2013, Mike and two of his colleagues set out to create a system for drone pilots to get usable information from their drones. The aerial pictures – and then realtime video – from the flight were great for understanding field variability, but that often wasn’t moving the mark for how growers managed their fields.
“What we found very quickly was that, that is not actually what people want,” said Mike. “They want actual measurable data.”
DroneDeploy set out to make this possible by automating the entire process. It takes the field boundary and creates a flight route, then captures the images and makes a map that allows you to understand what's going on in your field. Use cases would include stand counts to determine if replant is necessary, identifying vegetation for possible weed control needs, and general scouting. This also allows you to get eyes on the entire field, rather than just the parts where you have boots on the ground.
From there, DroneDeploy sends the information to the cloud. It can be easily used with other data you have collected and stored in different software platforms, as they have many partners that the data transfers to easily. For a full list of the partners, you can go to dronedeploy.com.
There are many different ways to leverage this data, from planting to scouting to insurance claims, throughout the year.
In reference to insurance claims, Mike says DroneDeploy can help you see damage from above in order to start quantifying it. “Being able to detect the lodging or the flooding and being able to not just walk around and estimate how many acres have been damaged, but being able to actually use a georectified image that is measurable within an inch of accuracy – you can actually get the precise amount of damage, the precise impact on the crop.”
In addition to working in agriculture, DroneDeploy works through a platform they call Drones for Good to give back to nonprofit organizations that could use drone imagery to better tell their stories and support their efforts. You can learn more about the work they are doing to give back here.
If you already have a drone, you can download DroneDeploy from the app store for a free 14-day trial of the software. If you want to learn more about their agricultural solutions, you can go to dronedeploy.com to learn how to use a drone at each stage throughout the growing season.
Have you used DroneDeploy? Leave a review here.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: Mike Winn, Cofounder and CEO of DroneDeploy
Morgan Seger: (00:22)
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host, Morgan Seger, and on each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. And, on today's episode, I am joined by Mike Winn, the founder of DroneDeploy. If you have been using a drone but not getting the data that you want out of it, or if you're just using it for recreation and want to take it to the next level and start getting measurable data, Mike walks us through how DroneDeploy can help you do that. DroneDeploy actually has a very interesting backstory that Mike shares with us. And he also shares how you, as a grower, can get a free two-week trial of his service. So we'll get right into it. Here's my interview with Mike Winn from DroneDeploy.
Morgan Seger: (01:08)
Welcome back to Precision Points. Today on the podcast, I am joined by Mike Winn, co-founder of DroneDeploy. Welcome to the show.
Mike Winn: (01:16)
Thanks for having me.
Morgan Seger: (01:16)
I am so excited to catch up about drones. It seems like, for the last several years, every meeting I went to there was at least one topic – whether it was about the regulations, if you can and can't fly, the data you're collecting and what to do with it – there was always a topic about drones. So I'm excited to dive in and see what you guys can do with it. But before we get into the details, could you take a couple of minutes to just introduce yourself to our audience and how you got to work in drones?
Mike Winn: (01:45)
Absolutely. So, my name is Mike. I'm the CEO and founder of DroneDeploy. I started the company with two of my friends from college about seven years ago, in 2013. And it's been an amazing adventure so far, growing to become the biggest drone software company in ag and across other industries as well.
Morgan Seger: (02:08)
Yeah. So I know you guys are working in ag, but did it start with a base in agriculture?
Mike Winn: (02:15)
Actually...so we started the company back in 2013. There were actually very few users of commercial drones, but we made a big bet that there would be in time. For the first time, we knew that people would be able to get a bird's eye view of the places they cared about. We made a bet that people across industries would find that useful. And so we started building the software and actually the first set of users were in agriculture. They were growers, they were early adopters of technology and they had a vision of how they could use drones to help them make better decisions. And so we started to focus on agriculture as our first industry, just simply because we had customers there that were giving us great advice and telling us about the problems that they were trying to solve with drones and how we could help them.
Morgan Seger: (03:03)
Got you. So if you could just start us from the basics, for those of us who don't have hands-on experience with this technology, what would be the difference between running a drone on your farm compared to running a drone with DroneDeploy? What's the value you are adding to growers who are flying their fields?
Mike Winn: (03:25)
Absolutely. So I think a lot of people start with a drone and they just simply take it out of the box and they use it with the remote control and they can watch what we call the FPV feed, the video feed. So you could fly your drone over your field and see what your drone sees and that's really amazing. You get this new game, this superpower of being able to fly over your field and get a whole new perspective. But what we found is, very quickly, that's not what people really want. They don't want to play with the sticks of the drone. What they're looking for is actual measurable data. And really they want to put it in as little work as possible to get there. So if you use DroneDeploy, we actually take the drone that you have to make the DGI drones. And if you use our software, we actually automate the whole process of not just flying this drone.
Mike Winn: (04:16)
To say, 'Hey, here's my field with 80 acres, whatever crop you have, you draw a shape of the top of that and then DroneDeploy will figure out how to fly that field, taking a lot of images and actually create a map. And that map is measurable, you're able to compare it across time. You're able to perform all sorts of analysis to understand your plant health leveraging tools that most agronomists and farmers are used to having experience with, in terms of understanding the field, birth level indices like NDVI, you're able to do analysis that detecting weeds and doing stand counts or by using the data produced by drones.
Morgan Seger: (05:07)
Got you. So the more quantitative would be the real-time imagery that you're seeing over your field, and that could still be used if you wanted to figure out where in the field to go. One of the questions that we get a lot is if you can use drones for establishing whether or not you need to replant. Is that something that you've seen people using and how do they determine if there's enough plants out there and how to make that call?
Mike Winn: (05:38)
Absolutely. I mean, that's a great use case for drones. And I think it's a really good demonstration of just trying to contrast kind of what is currently done with traditional methodologies versus what can be done with a drone. So, okay. If you're doing a stand count, you might walk out to the field, mark an area and begin to count across a couple of areas. And then you'll determine whether or not the plant counts are what you're expecting, but you’re only counting a fraction of the field. You're walking around trying to count all of them. It's not very accurate. You can only see... You can only really do that for literally 1% of your field, but with a drone, what you can do is you walk over to the edge of your field, you put the drone down, you fire up an app on your iPad or Android device...
Mike Winn: (06:29)
You'll tell it to start flying. It will start flying to capture imagery and you'll come back and land, that imagery will upload to the cloud. And it can deliver back to you literally the stand count for not just one part of the field, but every part of the field. And you'll be able to see those areas where they have high populations versus lower. And you can actually talk to your seed rep directly with real data of what's going on your field and make the decisions. And I think that's the whole core of why people use drones. Why an increasingly...it's not just the growers, it's the seed companies, it's the retailers, the agronomists. How do we actually go from walking a field? Obviously that's critical. We only see a fraction of it to being able to see the whole field, being able to see all the variability, being able to determine how many acres you would have low population versus how many acres you've got higher population. That's just about providing better data to make better decisions.
Morgan Seger: (07:28)
Yeah. So if we take that scenario one step further, does the data that they are collecting through DroneDeploy communicate with other software, like maybe the software that they build their seeding recs onto, where they could move that map into a different piece of technology to create a re-plant seeding map?
Mike Winn: (07:50)
Absolutely. So, yeah, it's actually one of our biggest advantages as a platform in the industry is we have a lot of partners on the software side. You can take your stuff... Any of the data into whatever stuff you already have. Instead of manually exporting it, some people use things like SMS for that. But in addition, we have connections with John Deere and a suite of other products where there's a direct data API connection. So the data can automatically come from John Deere into DroneDeploy to mark out all your field boundaries and then, when you collect some data, for that data to go back into the products that you use.
Morgan Seger: (08:29)
And as you look at the customer base that you have, is there any specific segment that you would say is the ideal grower for working with DroneDeploy? I mean, do they need to have specific crops or a certain acreage to be able to really leverage your service?
Mike Winn: (08:49)
Yeah. So we find the places where drones are the most valuable are in corn and soybeans. We have customers across potatoes and sorghum and pretty much every crop, but the vast majority of drone use is happening...I've seen that in the big markets of corn and soybeans. What we find is that it's really for the bigger farms, if you... I'm from California so you can imagine you can walk around a vineyard and you can see, you can keep track of your whole vineyard every day, because you've only got an acre, a couple of acres. But if you've got 160 acres or a thousand acres, how do you know what's going on? Just doing a drive-by you can get an idea, but if you really want to make good decisions – leverage your precision equipment – you really need good data and you can't walk your whole field, but you can see a whole field from the air.
Morgan Seger: (09:46)
Yeah, I can see, I mean we've been using NDVI imagery to really understand plant health and things for a long time, so I can see how that piece of data is really important for growers, especially the corn and soybeans. What other pieces of information do you see growers using the most or getting the most value out of?
Mike Winn: (10:08)
When we started working in agriculture, yeah, there was a lot of discussion about NDVI and using special cameras, multi-spectral cameras, hyperspectral cameras to understand what's going on in the field. And there's a ton of value there, but what we learned pretty quickly from our customers was that the value there is really more on the research side. It's very hard for a grower or even someone to really understand what it means when you get data in DVI or from a hyperspectral camera. But every grower can understand what their field looks like from the air and see the variability in the colors that they understand. And so we learned pretty quickly that the vast majority of production agriculture would be using just normal cameras and the data there will be not just indices. It would be getting maps that a farmer could look at and quickly understand what was happening.
Mike Winn: (11:06)
And there's all sorts of problems that we know that people solve there from understanding where the drainage is to seeing gopher holes. Obviously all of the things, the normal, the usual suspects of detecting weeds and variability and how much fertilizer to put down, but there's a whole host of other issues that people can just see from above. And one of the markets we didn't even know existed. And so a couple of years was agriculture insurance.
Mike Winn: (11:38)
That's become really big for us, just simply being able to see the damage from above and being able to quantify it. And obviously we get these weather events every year, being able to detect the lodging or the flooding and being able to not just walk around and estimate how many acres have been, but being able to actually use a georectified image that is measurable down to within an inch of accuracy; you can actually get the precise amount of damage, the precise impact on crops, and now – for an insurer – this is...it's actually really helpful trust with their customers because the insurer is always going to come in and estimate a bit less than what the customer might think in terms of the damage.
Mike Winn: (12:18)
And the growers are always going to think it's a little bit more, and now they have real information to look at together. They can say, “Okay, look, this is not my opinion, versus your opinion.” So it's subjective. It's purely objective information. We can just see what's happened to this field. Yeah.
Morgan Seger: (12:35)
Yeah. I can see that making that conversation so much easier. So one thing that we ran into and still run into with satellite imagery is having a consistent image. Do you run into that with drone imagery?
Mike Winn: (12:53)
Not nearly as much. So you can imagine one thing that's great about drones is they can fly under the clouds. So there is a lot less...clouds are a lot less of a factor in ensuring imagery. And in addition to that is you have a lot more flexibility of when you fly the drones. So a satellite is always going to be passing overhead at the same time. Generally, it's taking the photo with a drone. If somebody is looking to collect data, they can just go at the time where they see the sky is clear for them.
Mike Winn: (13:26)
So the only thing you want to avoid is having variability with both, in general, is you're going to get better data if there are...if the field is constant, consistently lit, so you don't want to part of the field having a cloud over it, but even so the data is still very usable. Even with clouds in the context of being able to understand normal variability, if you want to get more scientific and you want to use the current health indices that we use, the data is, is going to be better when the day, when the imagery is consistent. But the good news is it doesn't matter if it's overcast or sunny, as long as it's consistent, it's going to, the data is going to be good.
Morgan Seger: (14:04)
Yep. That makes a lot of sense. So even if you're flying under the cloud, the cloud could be casting a shadow that could impact the image, but if it's consistent, you're good to go. And you have a pretty wide window of being able to capture that whenever you are ready to fly, right?
Mike Winn: (14:22)
Totally. Yeah. You can get out whenever.
Morgan Seger: (14:24)
So is there any specific type of equipment that growers would need to get started? I mean, are you a fan of any certain drone or type of drone?
Mike Winn: (14:37)
Well, I want to tell you about my preferences. I'll tell you about the preferences of our ag customers. One of the best tools in ag, if you're going to use a drone, the most common drones used across our customer base in ag are the Phantom 4 Pro, Mi 2 and the Mavic 2 Pro, they’re both about $1,500, but good drones, they can cover 160 acres in a single flight, and they both produce amazing imagery with DroneDeploy. So that would be the recommendation. If you're looking at the trend, it costs us similar amounts for a farmer to leverage. And really you can use one of those drones. You press a button, they're reliable, they can take off, capture the imagery. With our software, you're going to get a real-time map. So while you are in the field, you'll be able to see, not just the image that the journey is capturing, but a georectified, which is just a highly accurate, measurable map of your field while you're out there. So you can walk over to any spots of variability and immediately treat that and understand, make some decisions about what you should be doing.
Morgan Seger: (15:48)
So, one of the things I saw on your website at dronedeploy.com, just kind of a side thing I noticed, was your piece on Drones for Good and I thought it was really interesting. Do you mind sharing what you guys are doing there?
Mike Winn: (16:03)
Yeah. So I mean, DroneDeploy actually started with kind of a drones for good mission. We...I'm actually a South African, my two co-founders are South African. We...back in 2010, 2011, we actually looked at using drones for anti-poaching. Rhino poaching is a very big problem. And across Africa, South Africa, where I think people got about 90% of the rhinos, rhino is being about... three rhinos are being killed every day. And we're like, hey, if you can get eyes in the sky, you could monitor these huge swaths of land in which they live. And we will be able to kind of protect them. It turned out, though, that while the hardware was getting good, the software needed a lot of work and we were three software people. So we set out to make sure it's accessible, productive tools for anyone. And that led us into agriculture, into construction and energy, that box where were the biggest, we also want us to keep up with using...enabling people to use drones for good across the world.
Mike Winn: (17:05)
And so we support a number of organizations, everything from disaster relief – you'll see drones used to map underground caves in Mexico; that's quite a cool use case mapping – all sorts of wildlife areas, understanding deforestation and reforestation. If you go to DroneDeploy.Org, there's a whole set of NGOs using our product in ways that contribute to the world. And we're really excited to support them. If you're an NGO, we have a program to help with highly discounted, if not free rates of our product, and we're just excited for them to be able to use our product to help them do good and to tell this story so we can help even more companies leverage the power of drone data.
Morgan Seger: (17:55)
That's really awesome. I had no idea the background there, but that's really cool that you're able to kind of give back in that way. And I think there is something about an aerial image that just really makes the story feel well-rounded because you get a different perspective on the whole thing. So I think that's really cool. If there are growers listening who are interested in learning more about your services or even accessing so they can start processing their data, where do you suggest they go? Or how do they get started?
Mike Winn: (18:30)
I know a lot of growers already have drones. If you have a DJI drone, I would just say, go ahead, go to the app store and look up DroneDeploy and try our products. You get a 14-day free trial and just put it to work. I'm sure you'll find it easier than you think. And you're going to get amazing data. I bet you on your first flight, you're going to learn something about the state of your field right now. So if you haven't gotten a drone, what I'd recommend you do is go to DroneDeploy.com. Click on the agriculture button and you can read all about how you can use drones at every stage of the season and how you'll be able to get the data that can help you make better decisions and ultimately improve your farm profitability.
Morgan Seger: (19:14)
Awesome. Well, one question, one final question that I like to kind of end off with is, is there any one technology, whether it's in agriculture or not, that you are most excited about?
Mike Winn: (19:25)
I think one thing...this does affect agriculture. One thing we are really excited about is that... about 10 years, at the beginning of this decade, last decade in 2010, drones started to become a tool where we could see what the commercial applications was early, but I was flying a R3 drone with a camera. In three years’ data, we saw that this software business to enable anyone to be able to fly a drone, to capture data.
Mike Winn: (19:50)
We think we're going to see a similar thing this decade with ground robots. There's obviously...this has been worked on for many years, but with the advances in self-driving with electric vehicles and what we're seeing from the drone world, all these technologies are coming together to enable the next generation of relatively inexpensive ground robots that can navigate themselves, that can be supported by software platforms, I guess, that make them into productive tools. So I would make a big bet that, by the end of this decade, by 2030, in the same way drones have started to proliferate across all of agriculture, across all of construction, energy and other industries, we're going to see the same with ground robots. And we like to think about them just as drones with an altitude of about two feet.
Morgan Seger: (20:46)
No, I like that! Do you...just kind of a side question to that – do you see people in the future using aerial drones to do more application-type of things or would you think that we'll just move to bots on the ground?
Mike Winn: (21:02)
We're going to definitely see a bit of both. We think of the growth in this robotics industry right now, we're going to see even more data captured by more types of drones, more types of data. And that's genuinely what we're trying to play works on. We are equally going to see, well, in addition to that, we're going to see more drones to take action.
Mike Winn: (21:22)
And in the agriculture world for, actually for many years, we've seen drones that have applied a pesticide and fertilizer. It’s starting in Asia with very challenging terrain. We saw that we were going to start to see more of that in the US. If you go to any farm shows, you could see a demo of a drone that can spray, but that's only one dimension – we're going to see a lot more. I think it's really exciting when we think about the precision applications there of micronutrients being able to be applied or being able to apply nitrogen just at the right times, because you're going to have machines that can be fully autonomous and they can, they're going to have booms of only six foot wide, so they can, they can spray exactly the right amounts in the right places. And that's going to be great for farm profitability, but also great for the environment.
Morgan Seger: (22:20)
Yes. I can see that and, you know, the other kind of side benefit to some of this is I can see, as people start adopting drones and bots, that it can kind of be almost an equalizer on farm size for being able to use and leverage precision ag. Because I know, for some smaller growers, it's hard to justify certain pieces of technology because they come at such a great cost. But having these smaller pieces that can still cover the acreage that they need can really help kind of level the playing field. So all growers can learn about not only how they're managing and the economics of each acre, but you know that stewardship and how they're impacting the environment as well.
Mike Winn: (23:00)
Yeah, that's actually an amazing point. That's so true. And I think one thing that's going to be very interesting is, historically, one of the drivers of farm productivity is being the machinery has got bigger and you can just cover more ground. And the reason that's been important is because you want to take the one person that's driving that applicator and make them more productive. But in the future, if you’re actually going to take that person, ask them and say, “Hey, you can command those fleets of robots from your laptop.” It doesn't matter how big that farm is. Maybe you should have 20 small ones and you're not just going to have that productivity impact, but you're right. It's going to actually have an impact on smaller farmers that will be able to buy the highest tech machinery for their size fields.
Morgan Seger: (23:50)
Yeah, I think that'll be really cool. And I'm sure there's plenty of unforeseen things that I'm not thinking of yet, but even just the risk that comes with operating such large, huge pieces of equipment, it seems like things like that would be lessened as well. So it'll be interesting to see. I'm excited to watch it, and as you talk about it had you said that 10 years ago I'd be like, 'Ah, yeah, maybe.' But it definitely feels like a reality now as we see things continue to evolve at such a rapid pace. So it's definitely exciting.
Mike Winn: (24:23)
Yeah. One of my favorite quotes and I don't know who said this first, but people as people, we always tend to overestimate what can be done in two years, but underestimate, what can be done at 10. So are the robots all going to be here in two years? Absolutely not. But in 10 years you're going to see a lot more. And it's likely, I think, that in the agricultural community, that it's not that everyone's going to have bots, have those capabilities be completely self-driving and fully autonomous, but they're going to see them in fields near them.
Morgan Seger: (24:57)
Awesome. Well, I'm looking forward to it and I am so grateful that you took the time to chat with us today. If someone wanted to follow you, do you have any certain place you'd like them to go?
Mike Winn: (25:06)
Yeah. If they use Twitter follow me on Twitter I'm @MikeWinn or @DroneDeploy.
Morgan Seger: (25:15)
Okay, great. And we'll link that in the show notes as well. I am so grateful for your time. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Mike Winn: (25:22)
Likewise. Thanks for the time today.
Morgan Seger: (25:25)
Thanks for listening in on another conversation here on Precision Points. I love having different guests like Mike, who really helped us push the envelope on what is coming next in ag. So I'm excited to see not only what comes of drones, but of the bots he mentioned and how companies like DroneDeploy are going to gear up to be able to help us get data and continue that process as we move to more and more autonomous equipment. Like he said, you can follow him on Twitter @MikeWinn or @DroneDeploy. And if you are enjoying the content we're putting out here at Precision Point, I encourage you to hit the subscribe button and leave us a rating and review. This information helps us reach other growers like you so we can build a robust network of people who are trying to move the mark in Precision Ag. You can check out our show notes and our expert advice blog at PrecisionAgReviews.com. Let's grow together.
Thanks for tuning in to today's episode. To hear more podcasts like this, please rate, review and subscribe to Precision Points. Visit PrecisionAgReviews.com for show notes from this episode, and read expert advice on the blog, share your experience with the precision ag products you use and check out our network of farmer reviews. Let's grow together.
Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail, specifically in ag tech, before coming to PrecisionAgReviews.com to host Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio, with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog called Heart and Soil where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Mike Winn
Mike Winn is a cofounder and the CEO of DroneDeploy. The company was founded in 2013, originally to combat poaching. DroneDeploy is now a leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Industry sectors they serve include agriculture, construction, mining, energy, forestry, and others. Prior to DroneDeploy, Mike held sales and technical positions at Google.