Ag-tech firm using aerial photos, big data to help farmers manage fields

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Seventh-generation farmer Tom McKinney, left, gives IntelinAir’s Ken Isley a tour of his property. (IBJ photos/Eric Learned)

Indianapolis-based IntelinAir Inc. sees a big business opportunity in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers keep tabs on their fields.

The company, which was founded in 2015 in the Los Angeles area, moved its headquarters to the north side of Indianapolis in August.

Its technology platform, called AGMRI, can analyze high-resolution aerial, satellite and drone imagery, temperature and other data to provide a range of information, including ground and crop temperatures, crop health, drainage problems, weed cover, expected yields and more.

Remote sensing of agricultural operations is nothing new. Farmers have for years hired pilots to take aerial photos of their fields, and more recently satellites and drones have provided other options for visual surveys.

But what sets IntelinAir apart, the company says, is that it uses technology to help farmers make sense of what they’re seeing.

The company was recently named to Data Magazine’s list of America’s 101 most innovative analytics companies. Data Magazine is owned by the London-based media company Fupping LTD.

Doug Hirsh

And in a signal that investors see value in what IntelinAir is doing, the company last month landed $20 million in outside funding.

“There’s really nothing that can replicate what IntelinAir is doing,” said board member and investor Doug Hirsh of Glencoe, Illinois, about 20 miles north of Chicago. To date, Hirsh and his family have made three separate investments in the company, including participating in last month’s round of funding.

“As a board member, I’m extremely bullish on the future of the company,” he said.

Hirsh and his family own more than 10,000 acres of farmland in central Illinois that they lease to farmers. The family has also made investments in more than 30 companies over the years, mostly concentrated in ag tech and multifamily housing.

Al Eisaian

IntelinAir’s goal is to give farmers accurate and timely information that can help them quickly identify and address emerging problems, helping to increase crop yields and profitability.

Using IntelinAir data, for instance, a farmer might see that weeds are emerging in a certain part of a field. The farmer can then apply weed killer to those problem areas rather than spraying the entire field. Or, if an image shows areas of standing water, the farmer might decide to improve the drainage in that section.

Such information can be hard to get without aerial imaging—if a patch of weeds pops up in the middle of a huge field, for instance, the farmer might not notice it until the weeds have spread, creating a much bigger problem.

“That ability to pinpoint where the issues are … across thousands of acres, is critical,” said IntelinAir co-founder and CEO Al Eisaian. Eisaian, a serial entrepreneur, founded the company along with Naira Hovakimyan, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

McKinney, left, said IntelinAir technology “sees anything and everything” going on with his crops.

Identifying problems

IntelinAir is currently focused on corn and soybean crops in Indiana and Illinois, and this past growing season, the company’s technology was used to monitor nearly 5 million acres of farmland. Next year, the company expects to double that.

To put that into perspective, Indiana farmers planted 11.2 million acres of corn and soybeans in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Illinois farmers planted 21.6 million acres of those crops.

Most of IntelinAir’s customers are agricultural retailers who then offer the IntelinAir service to their own customers. The company also sells services directly to farmers.

Among those customers is Tom McKinney, a seventh-generation farmer who lives in Kempton, a town in western Tipton County. A part of his family’s farmland, which operates as McKinney Farms, is in Hamilton County.

He doesn’t use the service on his entire acreage but does use it for the more high-risk areas that need closer management.

As familiar as McKinney is with his acreage, he said IntelinAir has helped him learn “additional things about my operation that I really didn’t even have any idea on.”

For example, IntelinAir data revealed that McKinney’s ground temperatures varied by as much as 15 degrees in certain spots because of variations in the composition of the soil. That information helped him decide the optimal time to plant corn on different parts of the farm, or whether to sow a more cold-hardy variety of seed in some areas.

The technology also helped him discover an underground drainage pipe he hadn’t known existed.

“It’s just an eye in the sky that sees anything and everything,” McKinney said.

Before signing on with IntelinAir, McKinney sometimes used drones—which fly at a lower altitude. That approach, though, is time-consuming because it takes a drone a lot of passes to capture images for an entire field. “It’s kind of fun, but it does take you away from other things on the farm.”

And hiring a plane is expensive, especially for repeat trips to capture a series of images over time.

During the growing season, IntelinAir sends planes up 13 times to photograph fields. The planes fly every eight days during planting season in May and June, every 15 days in July and August, and one final time in September.

IntelinAir then analyzes the images and pushes the information out to its customers within 24 to 48 hours, giving farmers quick notification about potential problems. Customers can receive the information on desktop computers, iPads or iPhones, and they can compare images of the same field over time to monitor changes.

Kevin Krieg

“You can start seeing issues in fields even before you could walk out and see what’s going on,” said Kevin Krieg, IntelinAir’s director of product marketing.

Getting underway

The company started when Eisaian visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and met Hovakimyan, who had developed a patented technology for aerial imagery analytics. That technology became the inspiration for IntelinAir’s AGMRI platform.

Eisaian had never worked in agriculture before, but he does have experience with big-data startups, all of which were launched in California.

In 2000, he was hired as an executive at, an early-stage startup that helped families lower their monthly expenses by alerting them to local deals on things like cell phone service. He left the company a year later, and in 2005, Dublin-based credit monitoring giant Experian plc acquired for $330 million.

Eisaian next cofounded Integrien Corp., a predictive analytics company that helped businesses manage their information technology systems. In 2010, Silicon Valley-based VMware acquired Integrien for an undisclosed amount.

He then cofounded a mobile apps and analytics company, IconApps Inc., in 2012. That company was acquired by Los Angeles-based venture studio Science Inc. in 2014.

“Finding needles in a haystack has been common across all the companies that I’ve started,” Eisaian said. “I just like complex problems.”

To develop IntelinAir’s technology, the company started by using humans who analyzed a lot of images.

The trained experts looked at aerial photos and identified different features: weed hot spots, variations in crop emergence, areas of poor drainage and the like.

Then, after the experts had created about 1,000 annotated photos, the company sent out scouts to visit the properties and verify that the annotations were correct.

Once the humans’ work had been verified, it was used to train the technology how to identify the features. Using artificial intelligence, the system then learned to identify the features on new images without human guidance.

“You’re trying to teach the AI to discern, to tease out those issues,” Eisaian said.

Though the heavy annotation work has already been done, he said, the company still has some reviewers and annotators on staff to deal with possible new problems—the emergence of new types of weeds, for instance.

“Our work will never be done,” Eisaian said. “A cornfield is not a cornfield is not a cornfield. There is a lot of nuance and particular issues that you need to address.”

After two years of development work and some pilot testing, IntelinAir officially launched its technology in 2017.

In 2020, the company ranked 714th on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies, reporting year-over-year revenue growth of 660%.

The company is privately held and doesn’t release revenue numbers or customer counts, but it says customers can sign up for a year’s subscription to IntelinAir for less than $5 per acre. Prices vary depending on whether the farmer is a direct IntelinAir customer or accesses the service through an agricultural retailer.

Eisaian declined to answer directly whether the company has turned a profit, but his response to the question—that the company is “still in the expansion stage” and “we’re still spending money”—suggests that it hasn’t yet.

New technology

One of IntelinAir’s challenges, Eisaian said, is that many potential customers don’t yet know about the technology or the company. In part, that’s because the technology that enables the company to exist is still so new.

Over the past five to seven years, he said, three advancements have coalesced to make companies like IntelinAir possible. The quality of imaging equipment has improved while costs have dropped sharply, cloud computing and data storage costs have come down, and artificial intelligence technology has improved.

“We could not do this seven years ago. We could not do this 10 years ago,” Eisaian said.

Indeed, a recent survey shows that interest in this type of technology is on the rise.

The 2021 Precision Agriculture Dealership Survey, released in July by the trade publication CropLife and Purdue University, indicates that a growing number of agricultural dealers are offering imagery technology to their customers.

A full 69% of the dealers who responded to the survey said they offer satellite or aerial imagery services, up from 59% in 2017. The figure is predicted to climb to 78% in 2024.

The survey also showed that 44% of dealers offered drone or unmanned aerial vehicle imagery services, up from 32% in 2017. That figure is predicted to climb to 65% in 2024.

John Scott

“People have always been curious to get that bird’s-eye view, but I think there’s more interest now because it’s easier to get,” said John Scott, digital agriculture extension coordinator for the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service.

As the technology improves, Scott said, the platforms are becoming more user-friendly, which makes it more likely farmers will give them a try. “The farmers are not computer scientists. They want to find out the information so they can make a decision to benefit their business.”

Scott said he is familiar with IntelinAir’s technology platform, which he calls “fairly unique” and competitively priced. “There’s a lot of interest in it from the producers I’ve engaged with.”

One challenge Scott sees in general is that the ag-tech company must convince potential customers that the service is worth the cost.

“Folks are willing to pay for something—if it generates value for their organization,” he said.

IntelinAir moved to Indianapolis this summer from California for a couple of reasons, Eisaian said. The company wanted to be closer to its core customer base, and it wanted to tap into the area’s pool of talent in both tech and agriculture, especially as the company grows.

“If you’re in ag tech, there are only about five places you can be, and Indianapolis is at the top of the list,” said Eisaian, who moved to Carmel in July.

He sees a lot of potential for growth, both for IntelinAir and for Indianapolis as an ag-tech hub.

“I think Indianapolis can truly become the epicenter of AI in ag,” Eisaian said. “It’s not now—but it can be.”•

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