It’s nearing dusk on Winn Farm north of Corvallis, and Tom Garrett steps out onto a field with a five-pound, four-foot boomerang that is poised to change the agricultural industry forever.
All of a sudden, a small fan on the back of the boomerang whirs and spins and Garrett gives a nod and a smile. Then, doing his best to emulate an Olympic discus thrower, Garrett hurls the boomerang, and it soars hundreds of feet into the air, adjusting its flight path and taking visible and multi-spectral imagery pre-programmed into it. Less than 10 minutes later, the fully autonomous AgDrone, developed by Wilsonville-based HoneyComb Corporation, is back on the ground, near where Garrett sent it into the air, now filled with data that could prove vital to Winn Farms.
Garrett, a sales representative for SS Equipment in Corvallis, is testing the drone at Winn Farm prior to a sales push on the new product. SS Equipment, a New Holland agriculture and construction sales company, primarily focuses on selling farming equipment. The company recently purchased the AgDrone, which they see as the next technological step for agriculture in Oregon.
“It’s exciting to be out in front of this,” Garrett said, while looking over data the drone gathered during the test flight. “The early adapters are already jumping on this thing hot. And the eventual adapters have their ears perked up right now. It makes me grin inside.”
Wilbur-Ellis, a national billion-dollar agricultural supply company, recently received Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate the AgDrone commercially. Wilbur-Ellis representatives plan to use the drone to generate chemical prescription maps based on plant health. The drone’s sensors will provide the map data so that applicators can target specific areas and prevent over-spray.
But Wilbur-Ellis received one of nearly 250 approvals for commercial drones for about the same number of companies in the U.S., according to Michael Wing, an associate professor at Oregon State University.
“I expect this number to be up closer to 1,000 in a year’s time,” Wing said, noting that strict FAA regulations have loosened in recent months. “I think as long as people are using them safely, this has great potential for people in the agriculture field. Really, it’s changing the way we think about doing this agriculturally, and also with forestry and engineering. The applications are endless, and this is just the start.”
Wing heads OSU’s Aerial Information Systems Laboratory, which plans to test the HoneyComb AgDrone for forestry and agricultural purposes later this year through a grant from Oregon BEST, a nonprofit that supports clean technology innovation. The team recently received FAA approval to use the AgDrone, and Wing said the team plans to do flights for grass seed analysis in July.
Drones have the potential to revolutionize the agricultural industry, Wing said, because farmers no longer will have to rely on expensive and time-consuming manned flights to receive data on crops and plant stress.
For years, the idea of using drones locally brought an association with military use, HoneyComb CTO Ben Howard said. But the AgDrone is gradually is receiving more commercial attention in Oregon, thanks to sellers like SS Equipment.
“People are starting to see that there are professional models of these that can be really beneficial,” Howard said. “If we receive a stamp of approval from a farm equipment dealer, whether it’s Wilbur-Ellis or SS Equipment, it means a lot more to farmers.”
The AgDrone is designed specifically for farmers. It is built of a lightweight Dupont Kevlar composite and carries two sensors to generate plant stress maps that automatically upload to a tablet or computer. Farmers need to launch and retrieve the drone, and preset coordinates on a flight plan, but the device automatically does the flying and provides the maps for the user.
The product might be new, but it appears to be a necessary tool for the future of agricultural work, Garrett said.