Wayne Kilcollins remembers picking potatoes by hand while growing up in Aroostook County.

Things are getting a little more high-tech these days. This past summer the Northern Maine Community College instructor of wind power technology found himself back in — and above — the northern Maine potato fields using cutting edge drone technology to record variations in potato crop yields and quality.

“It had been ages since I had done anything with farmers,” Kilcollins said. “This is what is going on in the future of agriculture and it is so cool to be a part of it.”

What’s going on is the combining of aerial, unmanned drone technology and computer-based global information systems — or GIS — to give farmers real time information that can be used to treat current crops and plan for future plantings.

The system is the brainchild of Raptor Maps, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the future of farming, according to founder and CEO Nikhil Vadhavkar.

“I had seen drone technology being used in agriculture but the farmers were not getting a ton of value from it,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and engineer said. “They would get these maps with colors like ‘red means bad’ and ‘green means good’ on their fields, but no other information articulating what the data was saying.”

The company got its start in 2015 when it won the MIT Entrepreneurship Competition and $100,000.

“With Raptor Maps, we wanted a ‘grower first’ mentality,” Vadhavkar said. “We wanted to work directly with growers on what were the problems costing them money and how can we build a system around solving them.”

The MIT crew, which includes Vadhavkar’s fellow MIT alumna Eddie Obropta and Mike Klinker ultimately developed a system which is now tracking potatoes, onions, tomatoes, beets, carrots and citrus in Maine, Idaho, Washington and California.

“We started working in Maine because it is so accessible from where we are in Cambridge,” Vadhavkar said. “And I work with several MIT students who grew up in Maine, so there was this great connection.”

On the ground in Maine, Raptor Maps installs a computerized monitoring sensor system directly on the “boom” — the conveyor belt that transports freshly dug potatoes from the harvester to a truck — that tracks each tuber as it rushes by and records size, weight and quantity.

This information is then paired with data recorded by drones flying over the same fields.

Once correlated, a farmer has a detailed analysis of how the potato crop did over every inch of the fields and what may need to be done to improve certain areas.

To get their start in Maine, Raptor Maps used a $25,000 Maine Technology Institute grant to develop some pilot projects in Aroostook County.

“The potato industry is adapting to new technology,” Jay LaJoie, business manager and fifth-generation farmer at LaJoie Growers LLC in Van Buren, said. “When I met with raptor maps, it was clear that their focus was to develop the tools that our industry needs.”

Working with LaJoie Growers, Raptor Maps conducted drone flyovers of the potato fields this past growing season and placed the computer sensors on the farm’s equipment.

“Now we have a ton of really good data from the drones,” Vadhavkar said. “What we do now is combine it with the information from the ground and the farmer can use that when they start to think about next year.”

Kilcollins, a certified pilot who flies for the Maine Civil Air Patrol, said he was thrilled to be a part of Raptor Map’s summer project. Working with former NMCC wind power student Caleb Gordon and current student Alex Dubay, the team covered 45 northern Maine potato fields with weekly data collecting trips.

“We worked with growers from the moment the potatoes emerged in the fields through harvest,” Kilcollins said. “We could count how many plants were coming up and followed that with weekly surveys to track how the crop was progressing and if there was any stress due to insects, fungus or from a virus [and] the farmer could use that information to establish spray or fertilizing cycles.”

With his FAA certification — required for commercial drone flights — and love of radio controlled airplanes, Kilcollins was a perfect fit for Raptor Maps, Vadhavkar said. So were the students, who he called “incredibly bright.”

“The two students were a really big part of this,” Kilcollins said. “I was in charge of the drones but they programmed the GPS autopilots and did all of the map surveys for the field to set the drones’ turn points [and] at the end of the flights they would download the data to a computer and then that night upload it to Raptor Map’s server.”

For his part, Kilcollins made sure the drones — a small ‘helicopter’ style craft and a larger, fixed-wing craft with a seven-foot wingspan — took off and landed safely.

“They fly under autopilot,” he said. “We’d set it to do its thing but if something went wrong, I was there to fly it.”

Since this was the first season for the project, Kilcollins said a lot of baseline information was recorded and combined with observations made by state potato inspectors walking the same fields.

“It was almost a perfect match with what [the inspectors] found and counted on the ground,” he said. “But we can set up and cover in 15 minutes the same area it takes human counters an hour to cover.”

This growing season LaJoie said Raptor Maps used the technology to examine his farm’s plant stand counts, fertilization, pest management and crop yields.

“Since this was more of a research project all information has not yet been attained, but we did receive a formal report on our stand and planter accuracy in certain fields,” he said. “Any data accumulated pertaining a crop can be useful, the technology will only get better from here and it will definitely be implemented on our farm in the future.”

For years farmers like the LaJoies have relied on human experts who visit and walk the fields for the information they need to improve crops, but he sees the time coming when that may not be enough.

“We currently have a great deal of resources for hands-on work such as field testing and assessment done by [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] employees who have been working on potatoes their whole lives virtually scanning our seed crops for virus and disease as well as assessing product quality and grading,” he said. “The true challenge is going forward, with these seasoned and well experienced employees getting ready for retirement it worries me as a grower who will take their place and what resources will we have at that point.”

At a current base rate of $11 per acre, Vadhavkar believes the Raptor Maps technology is the best and affordable answer.

“What I love about farmers is they are incredibly business oriented and it comes down to the return on investment,” he said. “We quantify that return on investment and can provide growers the information they need to make business decisions.”

He also sees the drones having applications in Maine’s forestry industry.

“There are huge amounts of land in Maine and people making big decisions on the wood there,” Vadhavkar said. “Having the additional insight that can be gathered and automatically analyzed by our systems could be very valuable for foresters.”

It marks what could be the start of a brave new world in Maine’s agricultural industry.

“Technology is changing so fast,” LaJoie said. “My grandfather Normand LaJoie was one of the first farmers to have a conventional harvester in our area in 1966 [and] before he passed away he often commented on how impressive it was the way that technology has changed our way of farming.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.