The electric-powered 3-pound aircraft buzzing over Dylan Nelson’s corn and soybean fields in North Dakota may look like a toy, but it has a high-tech payload and a serious purpose. Using embedded cameras and electronic sensors, the Vireo unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) takes high-res and infrared photos of the fields. Nelson uses the data, wirelessly transmitted to a ground control laptop, to count and assess the health of his plants, and also to identify threats such as diseases and insect infestations. Armed with the data, Nelson can make decisions that can improve crop yields and lower his costs, while minimizing his farm’s impact on the environment.
The Vireo UAV (pictured) was developed by Mankato-based Farm Intelligence2 and its affiliate FourthWing Sensors. Farm Intelligence2 also developed the WingScan software used to analyze data collected by the cameras and electronic sensors mounted on the UAV. Nelson is one of several hundred farmers in the Midwest who are using the company’s UAV systems — either buying or leasing them, or paying for targeted flyovers by Farm Intelligence2 dealers.
The agricultural UAV flights follow all FAA guidelines, remaining at least 3 miles away from nearby airports and flying no higher than 400 feet about the ground. While UAVs have been used mainly by the military to this point, agriculture is considered the most promising commercial application because issues like airspace safety and privacy are less pressing concerns in rural areas.
and its related entities are the latest ventures for Jerry Johnson, a serial entrepreneur who has been an innovator at the intersection of agribusiness and information technology for more than three decades. He’s excited about the potential of UAV systems to become an indispensable tool for farmers. “You can’t buy a farming magazine that doesn’t have something about UAVs,” he notes.
Johnson grew up on a farm near Kensington, Minn., and enrolled in North Dakota State University as an agricultural engineering major, before his interest was diverted by the burgeoning possibilities of the PC. He first used computers at a local Ford dealership and was subsequently involved in developing software for John Deere and International Harvester (now Navistar International).
A largely self-taught programmer, Johnson started his first company, Clear With Computers, in Mankato in 1983. The firm developed customer-relationship management software to help clients in the manufacturing, financial services, and high tech sectors. The company eventually became Firepond, went public, and peaked in 2000 with $62 million in revenue. Johnson left when Firepond went public.
After that, he became involved with the founders of an educational software company called Anlon Systems, which he led for six years. In 2003, he founded Superior Edge, an enterprise-level software and data company focused on helping farmers do a better job of managing their crops.
At the start of his entrepreneurial career, Johnson knew that he wanted to focus on agriculture, which had been “really under served,” he says. “Often, the software companies on the east and west coasts consider this ‘fly-over country’ — so there was a great opportunity.”
It was a bout of late-night insomnia in early 2011 that led to Johnson’s venture in UAV technology, and his creation of Farm Intelligence2. Unable to sleep, he turned on National Public Radio and heard a BBC interview with a farmer in Sussex, England, who was using UAVs to survey his fields. Johnson spent the rest of the night researching the concept. When he came into the office the next day, he announced that Superior Edge was going into the business of UAVs (or “drones,” as they’re commonly called).
Conducting field trials was one of the first steps. “We bought a few drones; some didn’t work very well, but we learned a lot,” Johnson recalls. “That first year we flew 900 test flights; no one else in the U.S. did that many.”
Digital sensors have been widely used to monitor fields at ground level for the past decade, mounted on combines, sprayers, and other field equipment to gather and transmit real-time crop data. “You can learn a lot about a crop when you see it from above,” Johnson says. Farmers have been renting planes for that purpose for some time. But the GPSlinked UAVs can create much more complete and revealing data pictures.
Last December, Farm Intelligence2
made an acquisition that didn’t receive much media attention but was a crucial strategic move. It acquired an internal division of Connecticutbased United Technologies that designed and manufactured UAV systems. Included was a group of aerospace, electrical, mechanical, and software engineers with plenty of UAV design experience — a team that Johnson calls “among the best in the world.”
subsequently created its FourthWing Sensors subsidiary, which designs and manufactures small, fully integrated UAVs for the agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, and public use markets.
The company sells two basic types of units: a vertical takeoff and landing craft with four propellers, and the Vireo fixed-wing aircraft. The firm uses several contract manufacturers to make its hardware, among them Rushford, Minn.-based River Bend Manufacturing.
FourthWing’s systems provide two types of images: overhead field views and measurements of non-visible (to the human eye) light frequencies, according to Steve Kickert, CTO at Farm Intelligence2. A particular issue, such as an aphid infestation in a soybean field, will display a specific signature, revealed by reading and analyzing data.
Every flight is controlled from a field operator’s laptop computer and guided by each field’s GPS coordinates. The UAV is handlaunched and typically flies 200 to 400 feet above the fields.
If an issue is detected, the UAV’s microprocessor directs it to make a second pass over an area for a closer inspection, rather than waiting for a human operator’s direction, Kickert says.
As Farm Intelligence2
notes on its website, modern seed genetics can produce yields of up to 600 bushels of corn per acre, and soybean yields of up to 200 bushels per acre. But actual yields are typically limited to much less than those numbers, due to problems with moisture, insects, or crop diseases. By collecting real-time data on what’s happening in the fields, farmers can boost their corn yields by 30 to 50 bushels per acre, and soybeans by six to 10 bushels.
Accordingly, Johnson considers UAVs the kind of “transformational technology that only comes along once in a great while — as cell phones have been. But we’re still in the very early stages of this technology.” Farm Intelligence2, which holds more than 30 patents, is constantly improving its sensors to enable them to collect and analyze more bytes of data, according to Kickert.
To some degree, how quickly ag UAVs evolve and improve depends on the continuing miniaturization of components such as cameras and sensors, Kickert says. One of the key metrics for UAV systems is how many acres can be covered in one flight. “The lighter a plane is, the longer it can fly.”
With the current technology, some farmers opt to “outsource” their field-inspection flights to vendors such as seed dealers or crop consultants. “We envision the day where every grower has multiple [UAVs],” Kickert says.
One factor favoring Farm Intelligence2 in the marketplace is the relatively modest cost of its PC-controlled systems — about $20,000 to $25,000 — when compared to the investments farmers typically make in combines and other types of field equipment. Farmers can buy or lease the UAV systems.
Another advantage: “There are a number of people manufacturing UAVs, but nobody else has the complete software that we do,” Johnson says. Still, he adds, developing effective UAV systems “is not a simple thing to do; there are a lot of complications.” He notes that sensor accuracy, aerial stability, and other qualities are continually improving.
Kris Poulson, a distributor in Casselton, N.D., has been selling data processing and analysis software from Farm Intelligence2 since early 2012. Poulson calls Johnson “a really inspiring person who thinks not in terms of what we can do today, but what can benefit us in the future. He’s the definition of ‘visionary.’ He will think of new ideas and put the right people in the room to make it happen sooner. On the creativity curve, worldwide, I would put him in the upper 3 percent.”
For agriculture, the use of sensor-equipped UAVs represents “the next technology frontier,” says Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “We’re at the cutting edge of a new era in precision agriculture. The really important piece is that we are using this software and UAVs to make agriculture more efficient, and reduce the environmental footprint.”
Enabling farmers to use less fertilizer and pesticides will also yield cost-efficiencies, he notes.
Neither Minnesota nor any other state is in the forefront of the ag UAV trend, according to David Mulla, director of the University of Minnesota’s Precision Agriculture Center. He points instead to Japan, where fleets of unmanned helicopters have been used to manage ag fields for more than 20 years. In 1983, the Japanese government asked Yamaha to help it develop an unmanned helicopter for agricultural uses. Yamaha marketed its first ag helicopter eight years later. Today, about 2,150 Yamaha unmanned copters spray about 2.5 million acres a year, according to PrecisionAg.com.
Mulla cites several technical challenges to improving UAV systems for ag use. Because of their relatively small size and low power, UAVs have payload limitations on the amount of gear they can carry. Other technical issues include determining what wavelengths are the most important to collect and read, and selecting the data processing techniques that will
yield the most accurate data, he adds.
Along with private industry, researchers at several universities are working on those and other challenges. The U of M has federal permits allowing it to use a 3-foot electric octocopter to monitor some of its research fields. Researchers at North Dakota State University are testing UAV equipment for monitoring a herd of cattle, checking each animal’s temperature, providing early warning of illness or identifying a cow’s peak fertility for breeding. At Oregon State University, meanwhile, researchers are using UAV flights to detect disease problems in potato fields. In Florida, farmers and researchers have used small unmanned helicopters equipped with infrared cameras to monitor orange trees for a bacterial disease that starts at treetop level. At the University of California-Davis, remotecontrolled helicopters are being used to spray vineyards and orchards.
While ag UAVs are beginning to have an impact worldwide, for now, Farm Intelligence2 is focusing on selling to farmers in the Midwest — “seven or eight Corn Belt states,” Johnson says, selling through ag retailers and also directly to farmers.
Johnson has made several exploratory trips to South America and sees great potential, particularly in Brazil, where many grain fields are even larger than those in the U.S. “We’re talking about precision management of each piece of land, applying fertilizer and chemicals only where you need it, instead of putting the same amount everywhere,” he says.
The farmers who use the UAV systems will play a major role in the success or failure of Johnson’s companies. Nelson, who farms about 2,000 acres near Wheatland, N.D., considers his UAV system “a pretty useful tool to help us be more efficient and more intelligent in applications of seed, fertilizer, and chemicals.” He also uses the data collected to compare results yielded by competing seed varieties.
Nelson contracts for about a half-dozen flyovers during each growing season, beginning in the spring by assessing the fields’ readiness for planting following the annual snow-melt. “If we have a wet spring, there may be water sitting in some parts of a field; or, in some spots there may be ridges where soil will dry out.”
Once the growing season is underway, one of the UAV system’s most useful data functions is stand analysis, Nelson says — giving the number of growing plants per acre, which he can compare to the number planted.
“Then, we can make decisions about replanting or reducing use of fertilizer and chemicals,” he says. “The GPS also tells you where a bad spot might be in the field, so you know exactly where to go.”
Johnson does not disclose revenue figures for his companies, but he says that Farm Intelligence2, Superior Edge, and FourthWing are experiencing strong, double-digit annual growth. To continue growing in the burgeoning industry, he says, the top challenge will be “execution — building a team, financing it, keeping good customers ... the whole package. I think our vision is right on. We’ve just got to continue to invest and keep moving the ball forward.”