Twenty-nine-year-old Armen Mkrtchyan still flies model planes over his family farm in Armavir, Armenia. Only now, instead of reveling in the boyish joys of flight, Mkrtchyan soars over the fields of grapes, apricots and apples as part of his research to improve agricultural production in his native country.
Mkrtchyan is the founder of AgroDrone, a project designed to analyze soil quality, increase farm yield and lower operating costs through unmanned aircrafts, or drones. This is how it works: Armen sends a plane into the air and over a farm. From above, the plane—equipped with cameras—takes pictures every few seconds and lands with a collection that forms a panorama of the farm. By combining the images, he can determine the health of the crops and vegetation and with this information can portion out exactly the amount of fertilizer and pesticides to apply, right down to the square-foot. Rather than treating the entire farm, this technique—known as precision agriculture—helps farmers save money and increase the efficiency of the farm.
The plan for the project slowly emerged during his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at the University of North Dakota: “The state itself is quite agriculturally inclined and there were professors doing drone research for this kind of precision agriculture. I started working in the lab of one of these professors and began thinking of how we could make this technology more affordable to use in Armenia.”
The idea was refined and came into sharper focus during Mkrtchyan’s graduate work in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for which he received an AGBU US Graduate Fellowship. Parallel to his doctoral research and with the help of the MIT Legatum Center, Mkrtchyan also worked on developing practical methods to make AgroDrone more affordable to the average Armenian farmer, while still collecting all the information needed.
In 2013, Mkrtchyan arrived in Armenia for his summer break and put the AgroDrone prototype to the test. While creating color-coded prescription maps—tailor-made plans for chemical distribution—for his grandparents’ farm, he began to see the differences in implementation between North Dakota and Armenia: “Unfortunately, the process isn’t as mechanized as it is in the United States. Whereas in the United States, we could feed the prescription map to a tractor and it would spray the fields accordingly, in Armenia, it is done in a much less automated way.”
After earning a PhD, he opted to move back to Armenia and contribute to the development of the country. Upon his return in 2015, not only did he continue his own AgroDrone research, but he also took a position as an assistant professor and the director of the Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) at the American University of Armenia (AUA).
At AUA, Mkrtchyan has the power to promote entrepreneurial culture institutionally and lead by example through his own foray into entrepreneurship. “We want to create an environment where students and faculty will feel prepared to start innovative projects and companies right out of undergrad. How do you optimize product development with Armenian companies and how do you help create Armenian companies in Armenia? These are the questions we’re trying to answer.”
Mkrtchyan is immersed in a fast-developing start-up culture and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Armenia and is excited by the positive impact he can have on people’s lives. He is proud that his country has reached an era in which people are thinking of creation for the greater good: “When I was growing up in the 1990s, I could never have imagined starting a company of my own. Fifteen years ago, Armenians were so preoccupied with their daily struggles that entrepreneurship seemed impossible at a time when we had to stand in bread lines. But now entrepreneurship is a reality for the young generation and we all need to do our very best to nurture a generation of entrepreneurs and innovators in Armenia.”