The sky is the limit for Marnane
HUNTINGTOWN, Md. — Three years ago, Zach Marnane was a student at Salisbury University. He didn’t love it.
“It was too slow,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend four years sitting at a desk doing homework.”
While flying drones and skipping class with a group of friends one day, he had a eureka moment.
“I’m looking at it and thinking, ‘There’s something here,’” he said. “’This is what every other great person has done. They’ve found something they’re passionate about that makes them happy, they’ve sought after it, and they haven’t let anything get in their way, and they’ve got it done.’”
It was a moment that grew into a small, fledgling agricultural drone company called MADTECH, run out of the Marnane family home in central Calvert County and owned and operated by 21-year-old Zach and his father, Tom Marnane, 56, an engineer.
Though some farms have been using drone services for several years, MADTECH, they said, provides a more useful pairing of field data captured from the sky with on-the-ground soil and crop analysis to boost yields and save farmers money.
The company got a boost when it won MidAtlantic Farm Credit’s AgPitch competition on Dec. 6, beating nearly 30 competitors. MADTECH won $7,500 and a host of free startup services from participating vendors.
“Why will people buy the MADTECH system? They’re going to save a lot of money,” Tom Marnane told judges evaluating five finalist presentations hours before the winner was announced. “We provide the solution. We don’t just provide data.”
MADTECH uses drones, rapid lab testing and ground proofing to write prescriptions for farm equipment with the goal of lowering costs related to fuel, chemicals, fertilizers and labor. It claims that finding those savings while addressing other agronomic issues with plant tissue and soil testing can lead to yield improvements up to 30 percent or more. It could help the agricultural industry as it looks to grow per-acre outputs over the next three decades to keep up with a growing worldwide demand for food, Tom Marnane said.
“Our whole thing is to make it easy for (farmers) to do it,” he said. “We want to be farm optimizers. That’s the difference between us and other folks. They just want to fly a drone, give them some data and walk away.”
Tom Marnane, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, is a mechanical and electrical engineer with a career spent optimizing factories, hospitals and universities for efficiency.
“A farm is a factory,” he said.
MADTECH flies its drones over a farm using GPS-guided coordinates, collecting data at a rate of 1,300 acres per hour with European crop analysis software, which helps Zach Marnane identify stressed areas in a field, he said. Company representatives walk the fields, sample those areas and return with advice: One area may be deficient in phosphorous and nitrogen while another may not need anything at all.
Timing fertilizer application with, say, the growth stages of a soybean crop can also grow yields — a process that used to require scouts and a lot of time, he said.
“If you can time your application of fertilizer to give them that extra bit of nutrients that they would need to really super-charge that growth, you can get increases of about up to 30 percent,” he said.
The company can also evaluate irrigation conditions and provide other solutions to issues like pollination or converting land into a solar energy field.
MADTECH has been testing its system on a number of Calvert County farms over the last year and has recently begun working with potential client farmers. It also seeks work outside the agricultural industry, and is on its second contract with Leidos, a Reston, Va.-based defense and biomedical research company.
The company plans to charge farms about 1 percent of the value of their client’s total yield, a fee that should more than pay for itself through savings, Tom Marnane said.
“What we’re finding is that farmers are embracing this,” he said. “We think you’ll obviously see a 3 percent return on investment either in increased yield or cost savings.”
The goal is to make agricultural drones a business, he said.
“Nobody’s made drones a business. This is just a data collection device,” he said, pointing at one of the company’s black, fixed-wing drones. “Farm optimization is a business, and that’s what MADTECH is: farm optimizers using the latest, state-of-the-art data collection.”
The Marnane family’s plunge into the drone business began, at first, as a hobby, but Zach Marnane said he sees a bigger picture now.
“We can really help people with this, and that’s what we set out to do,” he said.