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AgEagle’s Tom Nichol Discusses Development of Drones for Ag

May 2, 2016

AgEagle was one of the first drones companies in the agriculture sector. It’s also the second most popular drone manufacturer for clients of software company DroneDeploy across 2 million acres worldwide, according to its recent report. 

The business started when the founder and CEO Bret Chilcott began investigating interest in the sector and whether it could be a viable business back in 2011. He contacted Kansas State University to see if he could build their first test platforms then and the business went from there, fully funded by Chilcott and his wife.

We caught up with AgEagle’s business development manager Tom Nichol to talk about the sector’s development, and about some of the concerns about the efficacy of drones for ag.

How has the drones-for-ag space changed since you started AgEagle?

It’s been unbelievable. For example, when AgEagle started, the most popular sensor was a modified Canon S100 because NIR (Near Infra Red) sensors cost over $12,000! The Canon cost only $800 or so. Now, multispectral sensors can be purchased for around $3,200 whereas three years ago; those cost $20,000! Sensor prices are coming down. Aircraft autopilots are more dependable and accurate. Air frames have advanced from flimsy foam bodies to incredibly strong carbon fiber encased fuselages. Flight times have increased. Mission planners are much more complex and capable. The technology and sensors will change rapidly, but how the data is processed and how the data is used in precision farming will make farming one of the most technological fields in the United States.

What are the main services you provide clients?

We are a manufacturer of UAVs only. Think of us as a major farm implement manufacturer; we don’t work your fields, we build the systems that do the work. In that regard, our units are sold through Raven Industries, a major player in precision agriculture worldwide.

The operators — farmers of contract fliers — own their own systems. Image processing can be done by either the owner — if they own the appropriate software — or can be done by one of several cloud-based services such as Botlink. Once the image is stitched into a geo-referenced .tiff format, it can be imported into farm management software such as SMS or SST which can create prescription maps. Those maps can then be uploaded to field application equipment guided by Raven equipment for precise applications of the determined remedy exactly where it needs to be.

There are some doubts about the efficacy of drones for ag relating to the time it takes to launch, ground-truth and process imagery — what do you think about this?

Doubt is understandable. When auto-steer was first introduced, farmers scoffed and laughed, but no more. The same for rotary threshing combines and other cutting edge technology. When farmers realize that just doing “drive-by” scouting is inefficient and not capable of providing detailed crop data over the entire field, they begin to listen to what UAVs can do. I’ve seen growers amazed that in a very short amount of time, they can see the entire field condition and make more informed decisions, or they can remain in the past and just keeping guessing or relying on a hunch. 

In less than one hour, a flier can set up their system and plan a mission, then fly a full section of ground, taking a birds eye view of every square inch. Once the images are stitched — depending on the service used, about 30 minutes — he can see potential trouble spots and know exactly where to look. NIR images can spot stressed plants long before the naked eye can.

We flew a courtesy flight for a farmer who knew he had wheat aphids but didn’t know the extent.  In 30 minutes, he could see just how infested his fields were; then he had to decide if it was worth treating. With the overflight, he could only guess, and he even said he had no idea.

Cattlemen want to use UAVs to find birthing cows, track herds or count livestock. It can be done far more efficiently and faster with a UAV equipped with the right sensors.

Water management can improve with infrared sensors to spot dry areas, see sprinkler heads or systems that are not functioning properly.  Minutes, not hours.

How do you ensure an ROI for your clients?

We don’t. Any farm equipment can show potential for savings and ROI, but none can ensure it. There are simply too many other variables involved. Any UAV is simply another tool in the toolbox. A four-wheel utility vehicle, like a John Deere Gator, can not ensure a return on investment, but almost every modern farm has one because they save time and money. A UAV is not inexpensive, but it’s far cheaper than owning a full sized plane with attending upkeep and operational expenses, getting a pilot’s license and buying a specialized camera to take images, then converting those images into useful data.

Some folks may think UAVs are toys and a passing fad. They’re wrong. UAVs, when used by people with a passion for information, data, and farming, will be as common as those sport-utility machines.

Have you noticed any impact on demand in the wake of low commodity prices and negative farm incomes for many farmers?

I believe every aspect of farming has been touched by the downturn, but we expect to sell more systems this year than last for one simple reason. Growers are looking for any technology that can produce more per acre. If staying abreast of the crop health will help, then they are taking a hard look at it. Most folks I know bought their major equipment a couple of years back and knew that tough times were going to come sooner or later. They planned ahead, and they are the ones looking at AgEagle UAVs with Raven right now. Interest remains very high if my phone and email is any indication.

Where next for AgEagle? What do your next five years look like?

We are going to continue to focus our efforts only on agriculture. It’s our backgrounds, and it’s what we know. We’ll continue to develop new platforms and incorporate additional sensor capabilities into our aircraft solely for ag and livestock. 

The UAV world is far beyond what we saw almost five years ago, and it will advance even more now that the FAA is becoming more favorable for agricultural applications. Someday UAVs will even replace the typical crop duster, but the guy who flies crop dusters will now manage several UAVs at once and at a higher level of safety and accuracy than ever before. Farmers will be sending off small UAVs to spot check watering systems, livestock, crop conditions.

I even expect that ground robotic units will travel the fields and pull up weeds before they germinate instead of spraying chemicals. Other units will do the hard labor of hand picking fruits and vegetables.

Every one of those units will communicate with the grower or robotics tech with status updates. The farmer of today and tomorrow will be a tireless blend of strong muscle, determination, gambler and thinking technician.

It will be incredible.

The upside is that someone will have to service, repair, program, sell and program those machines. The future is very bright for anyone willing to learn.

Side note:  I’m 64 years old and lived my young life on a farm 12 miles south of Logan, Kansas. As that little farm kid, I never thought I would be hip-deep in the world of agriculture flying robots as I near retirement!  I’m amazed and thrilled every single day.

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