This former sugar cane farmer is using planes and sensors to find crop disease before it spreads

  • Ceres Imaging has raised $25 million for sensors and software that diagnose crop health.
  • Insight Venture Partners and Romulus Capital invested in the round.
  • Farmers are facing pressure from increased tariffs and extreme weather.
Farmers use Ceres Imaging to identify problems on their land.
Courtesy: Ceres Imaging
Farmers use Ceres Imaging to identify problems on their land.

As farmers face new challenges, from higher tariffs to extreme weather, Ceres Imaging is helping them optimize their crop production with sensors, software and aircraft.

Ceres started out building drones specifically for agricultural use. But like Facebook, which recently shuttered its solar plane project, Ceres found another way to deliver its services.

Now, the Oakland, California-based start-up installs 10 pounds worth of sensors in low-flying aircraft, and sends them over farms on a regular basis. And it has $25 million in fresh venture funding to expand its service across the U.S. and international markets.

The company's sensors capture high-resolution aerial imagery at various wavelengths. The images are combined into a mosaic and algorithmically analyzed by Ceres's software, revealing plant health in detail. For example, scans can show farmers where and when pests or diseases are emerging on their land, the nitrogen levels in the leaves of their plants or where their crops are too dry or waterlogged.

Ashwin Madgavkar, the company's founder who previously worked as a sugar farmer in Colombia and Brazil, said American farmers need technology to help the deal with a labor shortage and to better optimize their yields.

"They do not have enough people to walk around inspecting the plants," he said. Additionally, "our data helps them learn things weeks before they would discover it with the naked eye."

The company's "eye in the sky" technology works on a range of crops, including wine grapes grown in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, pistachios and almonds in Australia, or soy, corn and potatoes grown across America's heartland.

Ceres's new funding came from Insight Venture Partners and Romulus Capital. It plans to use some of the funding to develop a miniaturized version of its sensors, appropriate for use with smaller drones.

Madgavkar expects his company's technology to become a standard tool for farmers who are trying to do more with less. Most arable land is already being used to raise crops, but the global population is still growing and with it comes demand for more food, he said.

"Agriculture is ready for data and software," said Harley Miller, who led Insight's investment. Ceres' approach is asset-light, he said, meaning that farmers don't have to buy heavy equipment or install and maintain hardware on the ground to get precise, regular reports on their crops.

While Ceres has focused on selling data to commercial farms, Miller said it's beginning to analyze entire regions. Investors expect the company to sell regional reports one day to commodity investors, funds that finance farms and government offices that need to understand the exact challenges growers are facing in a particular geography.