Unmanned technologies for 4 million hectares of Ukrainian lands

Thursday, December 17, 2020
unmanned technologies

Or how Ukraine blows Elon Musk's mind

Robotics is entering our lives by leaps and bounds and today it is involved in absolutely different areas like agriculture, energy, construction, the oil and gas industry, geodesy, and topography. Drone.ua is one of the leaders in the Ukrainian unmanned technology market and a partner of GTInvest on the high-tech market. Along with their inventions, the company supplies airborne devices to Ukraine from international manufacturers. It collaborates with the largest agricultural holdings in Ukraine: Kernel, MHP, Astarta, as well as international corporations Syngenta AG, BAYER, Monsanto, and others. The founder of the company, Valery Yakovenko, spoke in an interview with Alexey Prokhorenko about how a hobby turns into a large-scale business, and how his first $200 earnings became the starting point for solutions that have never been used in the Ukrainian market before.

- Valery, tell us, what makes your business unique for the Ukrainian market?

- In 2013, when my partner Fevzi Ametov and I founded our startup. Everyone around was making money on ordinary aerial photography. And we tried to use the drone where no one had tried it on yet. Actually, this is our basic premise — the use of drones in non-standard scenarios. The most promising area turned out to be agriculture, and we began to try to adapt the drone to the activities of farmers. This is how the technology of remote sensing of the earth showed up, when a drone, using a special camera, scans the field and gathers all the information on a single map. The devices monitor the condition of crops, soil fertility, helps process crops from pests from the air. And today our technologies are used on 4 million hectares of sown areas in Ukraine

- Has the ongoing crisis affected your business and customer relations?

- During the intensified quarantine measures, our business processes did not suffer tangible losses, because our business is dedicated to working with big business and government agencies. The mentioned enterprises have not stopped operations. At the same time, we have strengthened our activity in several business associations to promptly respond to changes in the legal framework in terms of requirements for enterprises operating during the quarantine period. And we've managed to avoid our company being restricted to function, although there had been such attempts. Of course, had our work been stopped, our company would have suffered some losses. In general, I regard the crisis as a fruitful time in terms of gaining new clients, when a lot of companies rethinking their business processes, striving to streamline and reduce the impact of the human factor.

- What is happening in the robotics market now and what are the main trends for 2021?

Our highest-growing core segment is the industrial applications of robotics technologies. We expect the market to grow twice in the worst-case scenario and three times in the optimistic outlook. Robotic systems will soon make life much easier for people in numerous areas. For example, our new development is a mini-farm FarmBot, based on open source technologies. The modular system is equipped with a mechanical "arm" that sows seeds and irrigates plants. The intelligent system is also capable of recognizing and clearing weeds. This solution allows growing over three dozen crops. A person just has to harvest. This is an open technology, everyone can create and modify their robots, find other adaptations for robotic farmers. Ukraine is a very promising market for creating and implementing new technologies.

- How much heavier or easier has it become to hold the lead in the market?

- In 2020, it became easier for us to run business thanks to successful reforms in Ukrainian customs. We have witnessed the virtually complete removal of counterfeit products in our segment. As for the development process, no one interrupts our flight. Also, Drone.ua has taken on an important social mission. We cooperate with police and rescue teams providing equipment for specific operations. For example, aerial surveys help to more accurately estimate the scale of a natural disaster or conduct search operations. And special underwater drones are able to search for dangerous objects at the bottom of water bodies.

- What should a client pay attention to when ordering your services?

- When communicating with our clients, we emphasize the expertise and experience that our team has in a wide variety of industries. For example, we have a lab, where we can perform a detailed soil analysis after the drone has collected all the data on the areas of heterogeneity of the fields. In other words, we offer businesses a comprehensive solution to the issue. Thus, an agronomist, using a light copter, can receive comprehensive information from a height of 200–300 meters (650–1000 ft.) within 5–10 minutes about the state of crops, the presence or absence of problems, and their magnitude. Thanks to Drone.ua, agricultural companies are already analyzing agro areas and demo fields, where hybrid crops, various micro-fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and growth regulators are tested. Aerial data provide an estimate of the crop condition after the use of various agents, calculate sprouts, evaluate yield, and post-harvest results.

- What is the most non-typical project you had?

A non-typical project is a lifestyle for us, so there are plenty of examples. Once we were tasked to map more than 120 thousand hectares in a month and a half. Another challenge was to classify the huge sown areas across Ukraine in the middle of the season, predicting the number of hectares sown with different crops and the yield in several regions. But we had successfully passed these challenges, and it was a kind of a signal: we are moving in the right direction. Our services are used on all continents, even on expeditions of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Antarctica.

- How long does it take to estimate a new project and to fully implement it?

- Sometimes the whole process takes a few hours, and other times we establish cooperation with large corporations for several years. Everything is very individual and depends on the scale and complexity of the project.

- What technological novelties do you use in your business?

- We follow the trends in business automation and actively apply them in practice. I'm talking about using a CRM system to track processes or contacts. We use satellite technology for remote sensing of the earth to prioritize the work of agricultural teams. And in our analytics processes, we use our analytical models and neural networks to automate the processes of object recognition and element counting in the fields.

- How have eco-trends affected your business niche?

- One of the fastest-growing areas of our work is the development of the market for sprayer drones, which are the most efficient ways to apply fertilizers with significant savings in pesticides. For customers, this is not only cheaper than using heavy equipment but also more efficient, since the passage of heavy equipment across the field very often spoils 2–4% of the crop.

In general, today drones are used to study the melting of polar ice, with their help they determine the migration routes of animals, detect unauthorized dumps, fight poachers, identify violations of environmental laws, determine the level of pollution, as well as the impact of various contaminants on the global environmental situation.

- How does global warming affect business?

- In terms of agronomy, climate change has a direct impact on our clients' businesses: some regions are becoming drier, the seasonality of work is changing, planting and harvesting times are shifting. Accordingly, this is also reflected in our business. We optimize our services and equipment, change the algorithms of actions to help our clients not only save their yields but also increase them.

- What are your rules of life that help you develop?

- To develop successfully, we have defined three basic rules for ourselves. First and foremost: nothing is impossible, because everything that once was fantastic is the reality today.

Second: to move onward! The lack of movement and progress is already considered a lag. And the third rule: we are constantly learning. If we learn something new every day in our field, if we explore it, the results will not be long in coming.

- The whole world is fighting for better service, what attention do you pay to this issue?

- Given the specifics of our business, a high-quality approach to serving our customers is the key to long-term relationships. However, our business initially implies a deep immersion in the client's business, otherwise, we simply won't be able to solve the tasks set for ourselves. This approach also entails a high level of service.

- What IT solutions do you use in your company?

Our entire business is based on IT solutions, and our credo is to automate all processes in the company: from CRM to neural networks and optimize the services themselves.

- What are your company's plans? How do you see yourself in a few years?

- I will answer philosophically. Tomorrow will be the day when we will achieve another success, and in 5 years we will certainly achieve our goals and be ready for the next ones. The history of our company already shows consistent growth, we never stop at what has been achieved. So, at the dawn of the crisis, we realized: we have to do something radically new. After all, when the economy collapses, the paying capacity of the target audience shrinks, and therefore it is not worth focusing on a business that already exists. But new opportunities come along for an innovative approach because everyone in the market starts looking for an alternative to their classical established processes. Now our company occupies several floors in the office center. In our first six months we created drones in my kitchen and today we have exported equipment and services to 40 countries around the world.

We have chosen the path of growth and are steadily following it. Today we cannot know exactly what the market will be, because the field of robotics is very dynamic, and many factors from outside often influence the service. One thing I can say for sure — this is the future, and it will be incredible!

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