LIVERMORE -- It all started in Afghanistan.

That's where TerrAvion co-founder and CEO Robert Morris, a former Army officer, learned to pilot drones.

Upon returning home, Morris wanted to apply his knowledge of aerial imaging to commerce. The light bulb went off while chatting with a friend in the Napa wine industry, who wished he had a drone to overlook his vineyards.

Through a little nurturing from i-GATE (Innovation for Green Advanced Transportation Excellence) -- a Livermore startup incubator currently preparing for relocation downtown -- the idea became a reality.

But rather than use drones, which aren't allowed for commercial purposes, Morris and robotics engineer Cornell Wright came up with using rented Cessnas flying out of the Livermore airport. The planes would take photos, infrared pictures and thermal images of fields, so farmers could have weekly bird's-eye views of crops, letting them make snap decisions on issues such as irrigation and pest control.

Since its founding last year, TerrAvion has caught on with estate vineyards, Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, Scheid Vineyards in Salinas and large Livermore Valley winegrowers. Featured by TechCrunch and backed by startup investor Y Combinator, the company is saving an increasing number of farmers time and money.


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"We're expanding and growing," Morris said. "This year we're going to show that it works across all scales and on different crops. After that, it's off to the races."

TerrAvion is just one of the many success stories to spring from within i-GATE's walls. Patterned after Lemnos Labs in San Francisco and other incubators, i-GATE connects entrepreneurs with local resources and industry mentors. It launched in 2010 in partnership with the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia/California national labs, private industry and local governments.

It currently houses seven companies and, in an effort to lure more startups, the Livermore City Council recently approved leasing a vacant downtown building on Second Street to i-GATE for two years, putting $50,000 toward improvements.

Brandon Caldwell, i-GATE's vice president, said the new digs will help it overcome its biggest barrier to recruiting more companies: a lack of key amenities at its current headquarters in northeast Livermore.

"The trifecta for startups is a cup of coffee, a slice of pizza and a beer, and we're not near any of that right now," Caldwell said. "(Downtown Livermore) has all the elements of the traditional downtown hubs in some of the more developed metropolitan areas. The thing that's missing is the tech piece. That's what we're trying to bring."

Caldwell said the move will allow for increased Internet bandwidth and an improved computer design and fabrication lab, perfect for up-and-coming residents like Robot Garden.

Tired of making the long commute to a hackerspace -- a community workshop -- in the South Bay, Robot Garden co-founder Daniel Casner decided to start one closer to home, where not ready for prime time tech entrepreneurs could experiment using cutting-edge tools like 3-D printers and laser cutters.

Robot Garden opened at i-GATE in 2012. While the membership-driven nonprofit has been successful there, Casner said the new space could bring in local startups who might have otherwise looked elsewhere.

"We're expecting to get a lot more walk-in traffic," Casner said. "I think it will make downtown a lot more attractive to techie people who might think they have to go to the South Bay or San Francisco."

According to Caldwell, i-GATE will soon add an eighth startup, a climate science company specializing in long-range agricultural planning, using supercomputing technology developed at Lawrence Livermore.

"We've focused on quality versus quantity," Caldwell said. "We're watching these teams go from idea to revenue. That's really cool."

Though i-GATE's lease at their Longard Road location isn't up until September, some companies can't wait to get started in their new home.

"The instant the Internet is up, we're in," Morris said. "It's way more fun to be downtown than at the last exit before Altamont."

Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.