UAVs 2016: Picking Key Partners, New Sensor

Bret Chilcott, AgEagle
AgEagle founder Bret Chilcott demonstrates the company’s UAV during the 2015 InfoAg preshow tour near St. Louis, MO.

One of the biggest pieces of news to break in the precision agriculture drone world recently was that of Raven Industries’ exclusive distribution partnership with Neodesha, KS-based fixed wing platform manufacturer AgEagle.

Under the agreement, Raven dealers will have already begun the process of implementing the AgEagle into product offerings for the 2016 season by the time this article reaches your farm office.

I caught up with a couple familiar faces at the 2016 Commodity Classic in New Orleans, LA, back in early March — AgEagle Owner Bret Chilcott and Raven Director of Business Development Paul Welbig — to go over details on the freshly formed alliance. As someone who considers himself pretty clued in on the AgEagle system and its capabilities, I wanted to find out what Chilcott felt Raven could bring to his system to add value for the end user.

“The other thing that Raven will bring to our customers and potential customers (besides distribution) is the professional training that they have; the training center that they have in Sioux Falls, SD, and then also their technical support through the regional managers and their dealers is another big thing,” said Chilcott. “To that point, because they are worldwide and they have significant distribution south of the equator, it will help us balance out our production as well.”

According to Welbig, for Raven it came down to more than just Chilcott’s friendly Midwestern demeanor — although that part did help, he joked.

“As great as a guy Bret is and the company that he’s built, I would say that Raven has been, probably like a lot of others, paying attention to the UAV industry, and because there were so many different options we were waiting for the right fit, honestly,” he said. “Where we could add the most value with the partner that could add the most value?

“I think probably a real core piece of AgEagle that drew us together was they’re focused on agriculture, period,” he explained. “They understood what it takes to make this really work in ag — it has to be simple to operate, you have to get the data that is actionable in real time — a lot of the companies that we were looking at do a whole lot of things, they’ve got some great platforms and great aircraft, but they may struggle with image processing. Or their system may just be too complicated for ag service providers to utilize. For us it was about being focused on ag, and AgEagle built a platform that enables that and can fit right into our ecosystem, and it provides our customers with relevant information that can provide a return.”

How the AgEagle fits into Raven’s product ecosystem is another question I had for the Raven-AgEagle braintrust.

“Through our API interfaces, our partnership with SST, all this data flow — the workflow if you will, becomes very seamless and automated to the point that it will be very easy to take the data collection from AgEagle and put it into the Raven field computer to apply whatever product that is going to be necessary to treat the field,” said Welbig. “So a lot of those pieces have already been put in place and this is starting to be the realization of all these things we all talk about that can actually be put into practice now. And that loop can happen within the same day, versus waiting days or weeks to process the data.”

“To repeat Matt Waits from SST — who I think said it so accurately, he said: ‘technology becomes productive when it gets boring,’” Chilcott added. “And so when UAVs first came out a lot of folks bought them just because it’s cool. That wore off real quick, so now it’s boring. Now the customers are asking ‘what’s it going to do for me, where’s my return on investment?’ And that’s where the tie in with Raven comes in. It provides ROI [return-on-investment], especially with the data flow through SST and the Raven Slingshot system and control centers.”

Sweet Sensor

Parrot, the French parent company of senseFLY (manufacturers of the eBee Ag UAV), recently released details on its newest sensor payload for the precision ag set. Again, this was a pretty big piece of news for the industry, as I hope to firmly spell out in the coming paragraphs.

Sequoia Multispectral Sensor
The new Sequoia multi-band sensor by Parrot.

Sequoia is the Paris-based aviation giant’s newest multispectral mini-sensor. It was engineered specifically to fit into the same mount virtually all drones (both multi-rotor and fixed wing) carry for GoPro cameras.

Sequoia records imagery data in four spectral bands (green, red, red-edge, and near infrared) and includes a 16 MP RGB camera as well — basically five cameras in one.

According to Parrot’s Yannick Levy, Director of Business Development, the company designed the sensor to make its adoption among agriculture users as streamlined as possible.

“Drones today have been designed to carry GoPro cameras so we wanted to make sure our multispectral fit in that size, so that was very key for us,” explains Levy. “We also wanted to use the most standard interfaces for consumer electronics — this is why the sensor has USB connection for both power and data transfer.”

Sequoia allows direct imagery download via USB port, or users can connect the sensor to a mobile Wi-Fi network and send images directly to MicaSense’s ATLAS, a cloud-based processing and analytics platform for data captured with Sequoia. Sequoia owners who order the sensor through MicaSense receive a one-year subscription to ATLAS Plus.

But easily the most noteworthy aspect of Sequoia has to be its luminosity sensor (referred to by Parrot as a “sunshine” sensor).

“Multispectral sensors measure light reflected by the crops in very precise frequencies, and depending on cloud cover and even the time of the day, the sunlight has a different intensity in the various frequencies,” Levy notes. “In the morning the sun may be a little bit redder, and around noon it’s going to be more blue.

“So if you want to use the sensor precisely and you want to know exactly how much light is reflected by the crop in each frequency, you need to know how much light is coming from the sun,” he continues. “So the sensor measures what comes from the sun, looking up, over the same frequencies as the sensor looking down at the crops.”

As many that have used UAV-flown multispectral sensors can tell you, the ability for this sunshine sensor to actually deliver on these claims would save a ton of time on the post-flight image processing side of things.

And last but certainly not least, Se­quoia carries a very reasonable MSRP of $3,500, making it the most affordable multispectral option we’ve seen hit the market. For comparison, the Airinov-developed multiSPEC 4C sensor that works with senseFLY’s eBee Ag drone was recently listed online at one vendor for $13,125.

“We wanted to be aggressive on the pricing, again, to make it as easy as possible for farmers to be able to start with the sensor,” Levy says.

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