Drone technology in agriculture has moved rapidly though the technology hype sequence, from curiosity to irrational exuberance to overblown misfit. In reality, drones at first were a solution in search of a problem, and the recalibration and emerging rebirth is exactly what the drone industry has needed.
A compelling aspect of this rebirth is the use of drones for spray application. What seemed far-fetched a few years ago is now being embraced by some prominent players among drone companies and crop protection manufacturers, resulting in partnerships that are moving the needle on drone-applied inputs.
Currently, and to the best of our knowledge, there are three entities – consumer drone giant DJI’s Agras MG-1P not withstanding – that are driving spray drone research and development in row crop farming: ADAMA via its recently announced partnership with Israel-based Tactical Robotics, Bayer’s CropScience Division and its efforts in China and Japan on small-holder farms, and Rantizo (a seven-employee startup out of Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.).
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Representatives from each company shared some details about their business approaches, use of technologies, and view on the future of drone application in ag. Here’s a look at Rantizo. Be sure to also check out Part One (ADAMA/Tactical Robotics) and Part Two (Bayer CropScience).
Rantizo: Swarms Bring Strength in Numbers
Iowa City, IA (U.S.)-based Rantizo is carrying the spray drone R&D mantle domestically here in the States, and CEO Michael Ott shed some light on what the outfit is working on as the race to apply via drone in the U.S. heats up.
Most recently, Rantizo filed for a U.S. patent on its refillable crop protection product cartridge system (products are mixed and then loaded onto a cartridge carried by the drone) and is eyeing expansion into the high-value specialty (think wine grape growers in California) and cannabis crop markets in the near future.
“We want to supply the industry with picks and shovels, in a sense,” says Ott. “Or you could put it this way: People are growing their acreages and they need to spray. Our strategy is we go right up to the FAA Part 107-allowable 55 lb. payload limit, and then we utilize swarms – for which we’ll need (U.S.) Federal Aviation Administration exemptions under Part 107 in order to do. We’re looking at things like foliar micronutrients, and there are granular spreaders we can use to apply (via drone) as well. There are multiple things we can put out as long as we keep the volumes down.”
Ott foresees Rantizo’s drone swarms as helping to alleviate the labor issue (that is, worker shortage) plaguing all facets of U.S. agriculture, as well as the ongoing push from consumers to keep farm nutrients and active ingredients where they are intended to stay.
“Our message as a company has been resonating because we listen to growers and ag retailers and understand their problems,” says Ott. “Almost universally, labor is the biggest issue, there’s no doubt. There are not a lot of people who can get this application work done when the growers need it.”
As for reducing drift, Rantizo’s drones also utilize downwash from the props to aid spray mixes in penetrating the canopy. And the company has a pretty cool little piece of technology up its sleeves in that regard.
“The prop wash really helps, and then we’re using electrostatic spray in our sprayers,” Ott shares. “We were applying in 21-node cotton, about 36 inches tall and very thick canopy. Our very first spray we measured 18 inches of penetration deep into that canopy.”
Ott says charging the spray solution with electrostatic energy allows the spray solution to lightly wrap around and coat the plant’s leaves very evenly while also providing better coverage with less carrier while maintaining the same rate of active ingredient. The group is looking to undertake some paid customer trials with its electrostatic spray capabilities in 2020.
Additionally, an ag retailer that contracts with a Rantizo service provider on application work can potentially open up its operating territory and reach new farmer-customers.
“There’s a great stat on that. Say you’ve got a self-propelled sprayer an it goes about 35-40 mph on the road,” Ott lays out. “You can get about a maximum of 75 miles diameter away in any direction from the hub, or main office, in a day and still have time to get back by the end of the day. Well, with these swarms in the back of a pickup truck you can go about a 100-mile diameter from the hub and make it back on time, opening up another 73% of operating territory.”
Rantizo is also banking on ag retailers and service providers as the main adopters of its yet-to-be-commercialized drone application system, according to Ott.