Ag Drone Update: The Hunt for 1,000 (OPINION)

Having obtained my FAA Part 107 Commercial Drone Operators license back in September of last year, I’ve spent the past months dabbling in some light commercial drone work here and there, but mostly, I’ve done a good amount of thinking about why this whole drones in precision farming disruptive phenomenon feels a bit like a Vegas-bound charter stuck in virtual purgatory on the LaGuardia tarmac.

Call me bitter, but I could’ve sworn that AUVSI and all the other drone industry advocacy groups (aka lobbyists) said that our flying robot friends were basically going to take over the world by the time the homie Obama left office. “80 Billion Drones in the Midwest by 2050!” Or how about “Commercial Drone Market to be Worth $885 Bajillion Gold Scheckels Worldwide by 2019” they proclaimed! (EDITOR’s NOTE: statistics cited up to this point may or may not be actual statistics)

Well, let me be one of the last to say it (as drones have been getting their fair share of guff from skeptical ag service providers for the past couple years now, and I must admit, at times rightfully so): LULZ. We’re absolutely nowhere even remotely near the ballpark with those early projections (at least from a commercial standpoint — from what I hear consumer drone adoption is currently quite healthy worldwide).

Moving right along, by now we all know the various complaints about today’s drone technology and the various regulations protecting greater society from the imminent danger of drones (OOOOOO drones are SPOOOOOKY):

(EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’ve been here for awhile you know I love South Park and will — often unprompted — share relevant clips from time to time. Deal with it.)

Anyways, let’s get back to the most common complaints I’ve heard about drone technology from ag service providers:

  • You can’t cover enough ground in one flight with the 400 foot altitude ceiling.
  • You can’t fly out of line of sight (without an FAA waiver, which last I checked takes about 90 days to obtain), so you can’t conceivably cover expanses larger than the human eye can see (which is what needs to happen in order to economically scale up drone operations for revenue production) without moving your base station.
  • And, perhaps most damning to the commercial viability of unmanned aerial vehicles, you simply can’t complete enough imaging jobs in one day to make it an economically viable business without an Imperial Forces-sized fleet of drones and drone pilots in pickup trucks and expensive Li-Po batteries. Not to mention the data storage and computing power needed to process all those images into something useful.

Now, being in ag media I receive A LOT of press releases on a daily basis. Often, and this is meant as no offense to my PR friends around the industry (they will inevitably take some tiny sliver of offense — I’ve found PR people are delicate, sensitive creatures), those press releases go straight from my Inbox to the Deleted folder.

However, on May 11, much like the Grinch looking down on the joyous citizens of Whoville, my anti-Public Relations skeptic’s heart grew two sizes that day as I read the release from Minneapolis-based drone player Sentera on its latest fixed-wing for ag, the Phoenix Pro,  the heartwarming part for me being that they claimed the new bird was capable of imaging 700 acres on a single battery charge!

Sentera’s flagship fixed-wing drone for precision agriculture applications, the Phoenix Pro.

Holy Hutzpah, Batman!

Prior to the Phoenix Pro’s release, the highest acreage coverage mark claim I can remember seeing was from senseFly’s ebee SQ, a solid option in its own right with a single battery coverage ceiling of 500 acres (which carried a disclaimer — as most drone flight time proclamations tend to — that it could cover that acreage flying at 400 feet in ideal conditions). And I believe our friends over at AgEagle peg its newest fixed wing model, the ruggedly-built-to-fly-in-Kansas-winds RX48, at around 300 acres on a single battery. I’m sure there are some other fixed-wings I’m leaving out, but those are the main ones I hear of being used in ag, and we won’t get into the various quadcopters out there, although they have their uses they are all well-below the numbers we are interested in for ag service providers.

Intrigued to the gills at this point, I knew I needed to get in touch with someone at Sentera to find out just how close the domestic drone producer is to hitting a number I’d been hoping to hear that manufacturers were chasing, the coveted 1,000 acre coverage on a single battery mark.

A series of email exchanges later, Sentera PR Chief Sarah Ritzen had me on the phone the very next afternoon with Todd Colten, chief aerospace engineer and someone who worked directly on the development of the Phoenix fixed-wing series. Colten’s background prior to joining Sentera was in military drone applications, and he’s been in the industry for over 15 years, so I knew he’d be a good one to ground-truth my 1,000 acre coverage hypothesis with.

Plus he is probably the first drone scientist to ever take my call, so that was pretty rad.

Todd Colten, Chief Aerospace Engineer, Sentera.

“1,000 acres is a cool, nice round number, and I think it will resonate with people, but I think there’s a bigger story when you talk about how much you can get done with a drone in one hour,” Colten explained. “And one thing we’ve looked at beyond that one hour is the total operational cost. If you’re doing this commercially and you’re paying yourself or an employee to go out and fly ag missions, how much can you get done in one eight-hour day? We’ve kind of crunched the numbers and figured with a DJI Phantom (popular, inexpensive consumer quadcopter) someone might be able to do 600 acres in a day, and we found with the Phoenix you can pretty much double that to 1,200 acres a day.”

But yes, Colten confirms that even though Sentera is much more focused on how many acres the Phoenix can cover in an hour, the 1,000 acre mark is real, and it’s obtainable in the right scenario, of course.

“Yes, we could do that,” he fires back when asked point-blank whether Phoenix can hit my coveted 1K mark. “Let’s say we’re flying in ideal conditions at 400 feet — so we don’t even need the (FAA) altitude waiver, but let’s say we already have obtained a visual line of sight waiver — you could go fly in zero wind and while still getting enough overlap in the images to build a complete map using direct georeferencing (EDITOR’S NOTE: some professional mapping applications require very high overlap, at times reducing coverage) you could cover the whole ground at right around 1,000 acres before a dying battery would force you to land immediately.”

Not to get into a full-blown commercial for Sentera’s Phoenix here (I know, I am treading dangerously close as it is, BUT I JUST CAN’T HELP MYSELF), I would be remiss to omit that the craft achieves its glass ceiling breaking level of coverage by flying at a higher average speed than comparable fixed-wings on the market, this again according to Colten.

“Phoenix is optimized to cover a lot of acres, but also to do it in one flight (or in one hour), so we fly faster – 35 mph flight speed compared to the average 25 mph – and if you look at all the other traditional fixed-wing UAVs that have been around for the past decade, they all fly at around 25 mph because that’s the optimal number for a small hand-launched electric fixed-wing aircraft to get the most flight time,” he shares. “But it’s not the most optimal number for covering ground in the Midwest, so Phoenix was designed to be sleek and fly a little bit faster in the wind, and we put a really monster motor on it while still carrying enough battery and payload to fly for up to an hour.”

Although I learned some other really interesting things Sentera has planned for the commercial drone world, I’ve been pretty much sworn to secrecy. And I have to admit I respect this Minnesota groups’ hustle and ability to bring new tech to market at a time when a lot of folks, well, they aren’t doing much of anything.

What I can tell you is that, based upon what I’ve witnessed from Sentera thus far, I would expect to see more remote sensing offerings with greater endurance and capabilities released in anticipation of coming growing seasons. And I assume there will be more expanded applications for its suite of NDVI, NIR, and other advanced sensing products for DJI products (recently expanded to DJI’s super cool prosumer bird Mavic) as well as its own fleets of drones.

I, for one…

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