A Luys Scholar’s Quest for Agricultural Sustainability

Armen Mkrtchyan, a Luys scholar at MIT, is dreaming big about the sustainability of rural communities in Armenia. With a background in aeronautics and astronautics, Mkrtchyan is working on an airborne drone that can analyze the quality of soil for Armenian farmers using imagery.

Armen Mkrtchyan
Armen Mkrtchyan

The problem farmers have faced for decades has been properly caring for the health and viability of their land. “Farmers tend to treat their farm as a homogenous piece of land, which it’s not,” he explains. “They apply the same amount of fertilizer and pesticide to the whole field, although different parts of the field don’t grow crops the same way so they don’t need the same amount of treatment. This often results in a lot of wasted fertilizer and pesticide for some areas.”

Mkrtchyan has developed a small, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that flies by itself, like a drone. He actually calls it an “agrodrone,” which is hand-launched and flies over crop fields, taking pictures. The software Mkrtchyan has written can analyze the images and provide a vegetation health map that shows the health of areas of land.

With these images, farmers can instantly determine the acceptable growth rate. Although the idea of taking images to compute the healthiness of crops has been around for many years with the use of satellites, they work on a much larger scale. But Mkrtchyan’s drone can take pictures of a farm with much better accuracy even for small farms. Farmers can then determine how much fertilizer and pesticide to apply to which areas, thereby optimizing spending and increasing yields.

According to market research conducted mainly in the U.S., this will decrease spending by about 30 percent on chemicals and will likely improve yield by 10-20 percent, Mkrtchyan says. “This can result in significant savings, considering the low (and seasonal) monthly income of Armenian farmers.”

Mkrtchyan grew up on a farm operated by his grandparents near Mrgashat, in the region of Armavir, only a five-minute drive from the city of the same name. Their land supported an apricot orchard—where he conducted testing of the drone this past summer—and a vineyard spanning 1.2 acres, as well as cherry and other fruit trees.

“I used to work on the farm, applying fertilizer and pesticide,” he recalls. “I used to take the cattle out when I was young. They used to wake me up at 6 a.m. And I hated it, but I think its part of the process of growing up and knowing what work is.”

Mkrtchyan spent two years acquiring fundamental skills in mathematics, engineering, and physics at the department of radio-physics at Yerevan State University (YSU) before moving on to the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks in 2006 to pursue an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. There he was at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering Lab, where a few people were working on the agrodrone idea but on a larger scale. The planes were bigger and had a 10-foot wingspan weighing 50-60 pounds, and used expensive cameras to track vegetation health.

“Then I thought, what if I can do this in a developing country much cheaper? What if a farmer doesn’t have $10,000, but maybe he can afford to pay you $20-30 per month to get this data? And that’s where the idea came: trying to create something that’s much smaller and cheaper,” he said.

He went on to obtain a master’s degree from the department of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, where his research dealt with modeling human interaction with UAVs. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the same department, which he plans on defending in 2015.

Mkrtchyan’s plane has a 4-foot wingspan compared to 10 feet, and only weighs a few pounds. It would cost only a fraction of what other competing products cost, mainly due to the custom-made camera system and various other circuitry that was designed for affordability.


Love for Luys

Armen was one of the first Luys scholars from 2009, the year he started at MIT. For him, Luys Foundation is about so much more than the funding it provides to students located throughout the Armenian World. “Luys provides a connection to the people,” Mkrtchyan explained. “It provides a community with a forum to share your ideas and not be afraid of saying something that would be considered futuristic, like my project, which is not. It’s technology at work. But Luys is about helping with resources, which I think is what its best at—connecting people. The attitude is, ‘Let’s see how far you can go, but also how far by collaborating with others who are willing to help.’”

“The Luys scholarship has given me the freedom to choose a research project that I am personally passionate about. More importantly, through Luys I have gained access to an incredible network of people who are enthusiastic about helping each other achieve their dreams. It is this network of young students, mentors, and professionals that will stay strong and continue to develop for a long time.”


Future plans

One of Mkrtchyan’s dreams is to start a research center in Armenia that would not only benefit him but also Armenian citizens. He is developing a framework for companies, small or large, who want to create products for developing or emerging countries.

“There’s been a lot of studies conducted in the past that show that products that are made for developed markets don’t really work well in developing markets,” he said. “The needs aren’t the same, people can’t afford them, and conditions are different—for a whole bunch of reasons. So I’m trying to develop this framework that we can provide to startups or financial companies to develop products.”

Most of his research is actually being conducted in Armenia. He has spoken to several IT companies in Armenia to discover how products can be developed for the Armenian market, even though most are outsourcing to foreign markets. His intent is not only to produce his UAV in Armenia but also export the product to other countries.

“If we can develop the UAV in Armenia, we can export it to the U.S., for example, and to Australia, Eastern Europe, Russia, where the market is much larger than the Armenian market,” he said.

“The plan is to have enough money raised to start the actual commercial phase rather than the developmental phase when I’m done with my studies, and not postpone until it’s too late. It’s going to be a very crowded space as UAVs are becoming very popular, so I cannot afford to wait.”

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.


  1. Mr. Mkrtchyan:

    a great project and a very worthy endeavor.
    is there a web site at MIT or YSU on this so we can keep up to date as to your progress on the agricultural drone and eventual deployment ?

  2. If the Agriculture authority does not have a soil map by now, it is a shame. He should be aware that soil maps and depth of soil as well as water resources are equally important; can the agrodrone measure these aspects. Another factor that I have noticed is that too many chemical fertilizers have been used in many locations, thus depleting the soils of necessary minerals and other necessary ingredients to replenish soils. An effective extension service that visits the farmers at least once a month is also important. Identifying crops that bring back the soils while providing farmers with sustainable incomes is also important.

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