Mavrx, Inc. takes flight at the New Richmond Airport
Lucian Banitz is the operations manager for Mavrx, Inc., a company that utilizes high resolution aerial photography and satellite imagery to create customized maps and reports. Farmers and other agronomic service providers use that information to better monitor a variety of issues ranging from nitrogen content and soil type to the impact of pests and weather, to facilitate maximum crop yields.
In 2011, founding members Yuan Gao and Max Bruner merged their backgrounds in database development, natural resources, robotics, imaging, biomedical engineering and sensor networks into an idea that would become Mavrx.
Based in San Francisco, Mavrx was originally focused on developing drone technology. They soon realized the real value was not in the actual drone, but in the information that drones could capture. The founders initially considered applying that technology to the mining industry and facility surveying before settling on agriculture. It was not long before they figured out drones could not be scaled up to meet the vast needs of Midwest agriculture.
"We quickly learned it's not the cost of the craft that was prohibitive, but the speed at which a drone could survey farmland. It simply took too long and the man hours and the driving from field to field was impractical. Typically, a fixed wing aircraft like the Cessna 172 we're using here in New Richmond, can cover as much acreage in one hour as you would typically spend a week on with a drone," said Banitz.
Today Mavrx is an industry-leading provider of precision agricultural solutions operating from Oregon to Florida.
"We provide an end-to-end precision agricultural solution. We obtain satellite imagery and add that to the aerial imagery we collect using fixed wing airplanes along with weather data, soil data, and any other data that's available for a farm. We combine that data in a mobile-based application that we have developed, as well as a web interface, which then processes all this data. We derive certain results and indices from this data which we publish in the form of reports and maps. We then provide that information to a farmer who can use it to make better decisions about how to apply precision applications on his farm. Our information allows him to get the most out of his modern equipment which can precisely vary the rate at which fertilizers and pesticides are applied to his fields," explained Banitz.
In 2014, Mavrx contracted with New Richmond Airport Director Mike Demulling to pilot flights over western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota cropland employing an early version of the Mavrx camera hardware. Demulling was an experienced enough pilot to be able to follow a prescribed flight plan while manually operating the camera at the same time. Often that operation required two people.
Today, Mavrx Navigator software shows a pilot where to fly, what altitude to fly at and what speed to fly at to capture the images. The system operates completely autonomously. All a pilot needs to do is fly where his iPad tells him. If he's on the right line, at the right altitude and the right speed, the Mavrx camera system will trigger as needed by itself. From there Mavrx Scout takes over processing and presenting the data to growers in the form of customized maps and reports.
Mavrx technology found a market in the massive Midwestern corn and bean acreage and has grown quickly over the ensuing three years.
"Our company has grown quite considerably from four or five people in 2014 to 22 full-time staff this year. Our acreage has also grown. This year we will have flown in excess of one million acres total for all the different crops by the end of the season. In 2014 we didn't even make 100,000 acres," explained Banitz.
Staff does not include pilots which are contracted independently.
"Our pilot network is all contracted pilots, no staff pilots. This year we operated out of 46 airfields around the Midwest in 18 states. In 2017 we have contracted with over 50 pilots total. In 2014 we had one pilot, Mike, and we were flying only in Wisconsin," said Banitz.
Turns out, Demulling made a lasting impression and has been an excellent ambassador for New Richmond and the airport.
The rapid growth in the Midwest market made doing business out of San Francisco logistically difficult, especially if you like to sleep in.
"Today, 90 percent of our clients currently are in the Midwest. Our primary focus is corn and beans. It became difficult to run the company operationally out of San Francisco, in part because of the time difference. Pilots get airborne at 8 a.m. so they are busy preparing for their flying day at 6:30 a.m. Central time. That means that to support the pilots, we have to be up at 4:30 a.m. Logistically, we also have to move equipment around. If a camera system fails, we need to replace it as quickly as possible," said Banitz.
Finally, and many of you may find this hard to believe, the internet service at the New Richmond airport is excellent according to Banitz. Combined with its Midwest location, laid back atmosphere and reasonable rent, Mavrx decided it would be the perfect place to relocate their operations center and data processing team starting in 2018.
"A lot of airports have insufficient bandwidth to be able to upload and send the images to San Francisco for us to process, so the actual memory cards need to be shipped by overnight carrier. Looking at where UPS and FedX operate in the country, and knowing we want to serve the Midwest, we needed to be in or close to Minneapolis, Chicago or Memphis. I was sent out here to start the operations office and I've been to all the other places. I liked New Richmond the most. Mike had been flying for us for such a long time and the facilities here are great, the rent is reasonable, and the airport here has great bandwidth. I love this town," said Banitz.
The Mavrx staff in New Richmond currently includes two full-time employees including Banitz and four part-time employees responsible for data processing. Two of the part-time employees are WITC interns. Banitz sees WITC as a valuable resource.
"Two of the part-time people we have been using this season have been interns from WITC. We'd certainly like to work closely with them going forward," said Banitz.
Mavrx has a sales team and a client solutions team that are scattered all over the Midwest with people in Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Tennessee. They also have an engineering team based in San Francisco. During the peak season, the engineering team helps with a lot of data processing. As the company expands, the objective will be to put together a dedicated data processing team in New Richmond, allowing the engineering team to stay in San Francisco to focus on engineering.
"New Richmond will do all of the client interfacing. Collection, processing and publishing of client facing data will be run out of here starting with the 2018 season," said Banitz.
As Mavrx continues to add acreage to its Midwest operations, it also recognizes that the agricultural market is seasonal which provides opportunities to find other markets in which to apply their technology.
"We're always looking for other applications. We're focused at the moment on crops and crop health so we can actually do the best job that we can at that. But in agriculture, you're on a seasonal cycle, so we have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that essentially sits on the shelf for the winter. So we are looking seriously into other applications like pipeline monitoring and disaster management. We can certainly do damage surveys," said Banitz.
The future looks bright for Mavrx and it looks like New Richmond will be playing an increasingly important role in that future.
"We've reached the point where our service is reliable and accurate. The big challenge now is getting the data turned around in under 24 hours. on a very large scale. So for 2018, I understand from the sales team, we could be looking at imaging across Midwest crops in excess of five million acres."
For more information about Mavrx, visit them online at: www.mavrx.co.