SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. farmers produce wine, table grapes, juice and raisins worth more than $5.8 billion annually, but many vineyard managers continue to estimate their output as they have for decades, by weighing individual fruit clusters and multiplying the results by the average number of clusters per vine and the average number of vines per acre. Vinsight, a Silicon Valley startup, is hoping to change that by offering farmers a way to estimate crop yield that combines satellite imagery with weather and ground sensor data.
“We can offer a yield prediction number with a 10 percent error rate on average and that happens four months before harvest,” said Megan Nunes, chief executive of Redwood City, California-based Vinsight.
That error rate is far better than the industry average of 30 to 40 percent, Nunes said, which often leaves farmers ill-prepared for harvest time. “Without knowing how many tons you will produce, it’s hard to figure out how many employees to hire, how many trucks you need and how many tons to contract out to winemakers,” Nunes said.
When Nunes and Tomas Svitek, Vinsight chief technical officer, founded the company in May, they expected their product to appeal to various grape growers, including boutique winemakers with fields of half a square kilometer or less. Instead, corporate wineries with 4 or more square kilometers are Vinsight’s most enthusiastic audience. “The people who need accurate yield estimates are large landowners,” Nunes said.
Vinsight uses free data drawn from the NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat Earth imaging satellite and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers onboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra Earth observation satellites to produce indices showing the density of green vegetation in an area. Vinsight then compares those data with 10 years of weather records and harvest reports to detect patterns and identify correlations. “We look at 10 years of data to get a good representation of different growing cycles and weather patterns,” Nunes said.
Vinsight was founded with $250,000 from angel investor Michael Malin, president of Malin Space Science Systems of San Diego. The company is currently seeking seed money to expand its product line to support farmers growing other cash crops, including tree nuts, strawberries and hops.
Nunes and Svitek worked together previously at Canopus Systems LLC, a small-satellite company affiliated with Dauria Aerospace. In October 2014, after Canopus launched two Perseus-M maritime surveillance satellites, Mikhail Kokorich, Dauria Aerospace founder and president, fired Svitek and Nunes resigned. Svitek and Nunes originally joined forces at Stellar Exploration of San Luis Obispo, California, a company Svitek continues to run that built Lightsail, the Planetary Society’s solar-powered cubesat scheduled to launch in 2016 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Although their previous collaborations produced space-related hardware, Nunes and Svitek are now focused on applications to take advantage of the growing array of space-based Earth imagery.
“We decided after Stellar Exploration and Canopus not to go back into the satellite manufacturing, which is our background, but rather to go downstream, into data analytics and applications,” Svitek said by email. “We picked one niche application, analysis of vineyards using existing and upcoming remote sensing. Building a bridge between satellite and farmer is not an easy task, but it is an essential and potentially profitable venture.”