Industry Watch

Business is looking up for Minnesota drones

New generation of drones provides a lower cost for aerial tasks, plus a whole new range of applications

By Brian Martucci
Thursday, March 24, 2016

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, get a bad rap. Many folks think of drones either as weapons of war — the Predator drones that prowl the skies above the Middle East — or creepy surveillance tools that help the feds spy on law-abiding citizens.

Sure, drones can be used for ill. But, thanks to rapid technological improvements and old-fashioned problem-solving, they’re increasingly seen as a force for good — and profit. Even as they disrupt staid industries, like commercial photography and farm management, drones create exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs capable of imagining the possibilities.

Two up-and-coming Minnesota businesses see those possibilities clearly. Here’s how they’re using unmanned aerial vehicles to create value for their customers.

Leading Edge Technologies: Faster, cheaper, smarter crop monitoring

Todd Golly, a prominent southern Minnesota corn and soybean farmer, founded Leading Edge Technologies as an agricultural drone and sensor reseller. What really excites Golly (now COO), CEO Orlando Saez and the rest of the Leading Edge team, though, is the company’s drone-driven crop monitoring service business. Many farmers don’t feel comfortable piloting their own unmanned aerial vehicles, so Leading Edge does it for them — collecting troves of crop data along the way. 

“We help farmers leverage drones for crop monitoring without exposure to regulation risk, excessive capital expenditure or time-consuming training,” explains Saez. “The agriculture industry loses huge sums to poor field management, and we help identify problems before it’s too late.”

Leading Edge collects visual, infrared and weather data, runs it through a proprietary back end system with automated (pattern recognition software) and human (credentialed agronomists) components, and sells it to agricultural co-ops, equipment resellers, and other businesses that deal directly with farmers. Leading Edge’s clients use that data to “sell smarter” to existing customers, or reach out to new ones.

“Our investors see us in part as a lead generation service for the agriculture services vertical,” says Saez. By limiting its client base, this approach reduces Leading Edge’s business development costs — allowing the company to focus more on research and execution, and less on selling.

“The agriculture industry is built on trust between suppliers and growers,” adds Golly. “We’re not trying to disrupt that workflow. We’re simply interested in complementing current industry practices with tools that make everyone’s job easier.” And, hopefully, more lucrative.

Sentera: Drones for all

Richfield-based Sentera’s motto, “drones for all,” is fitting. Sentera is Minnesota’s premier drone engineering outfit. It designs and manufactures specialized drones, including the Phoenix, and drone-mounted sensors. It’s an authorized retailer for third-party drone manufacturers, too. It offers industry-specific, drone- and software-driven solution packages, such as OnTop for telephone towers and other infrastructure such as wind turbines and power lines, AgVault for crop management, and non-branded surveillance and search-and-rescue services for law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Sentera’s website sums it up thusly: “We tirelessly push for better, more effective ways to use drones as a value amplifier in many different industries…[W]e work towards a world where aerial photography and data collection are simple, frictionless, everyday exercises that drive intelligent decision-making.”

And Sentera recently scored a big get: In February, the company announced its status as John Deere’s newest Operations Center Production Partner. It’s one of just 18 companies with that distinction, the only drone provider, and the only company whose data management capabilities support imagery from manned aircraft, satellites and drones. Sentera’s affiliation with Deere gives it access to the Illinois-based agricultural conglomerate’s entire customer and dealer network, a potentially incalculable boon.

Sentera isn’t content to rest on its laurels, and the Deere partnership won’t monopolize its resources. The company teamed up with the U of M College of Science and Engineering’s UAV Research Labs to develop a reliable autopilot system that would allow drones to fly without on-the-ground pilots or observers. NASA, among others, is interested in the technology, and UAV Research Labs Director Brian Taylor told KSTP 5 earlier this year that “the applications are basically endless.”

The skies are getting crowded

Sentera and Leading Edge certainly aren’t the only companies riding the drone wave. In 2015, Amazon made headlines when it released a drone-friendly airspace proposal featuring a “high-speed transit” lane between 200 and 400 feet above ground level. Commercial drones would have free reign there; no hobbyists allowed.

Amazon is working furiously on drones capable of making rapid, reliable deliveries. Though the company is famously secretive, its massive new Shakopee facility would certainly be a hub for drone delivery in Minnesota. And that could happen sooner than many think.

“Technologically, there’s not a lot standing in the way,” says John Waterston, a drone enthusiast who runs Johnny Drones, a drone-driven aerial photography business. “With no regulatory holdups, we could see the first delivery drones in a year or two.”

It’s not just Amazon that stands to benefit from drone-friendly skies. Logistics companies, brick-and-mortar retailers, even restaurants and food delivery companies are placing their bets.

“In the not-too-distant future,” says Waterston, “your lunch is going to be delivered by drone.”