Who in agriculture are using drones today—what stage of adoption are we in?
We are seeing a diverse cross-section of users—from family farmers, to large agribusinesses, to consultants, to insurance providers. Over the past three years, we’ve seen an influx of interest; many were early adopters who were learning how to take photos and use that information to create value. We’ve seen a distinct move in the market toward a more sophisticated user. Growers, businesses, consultants and many others are realizing that collected data creates another level of value. Some of the data can be used today, in the form of imagery, but future opportunity still lies in the analytics being performed on the collected data.
Did the evolving FAA regulations cause growing pains for the industry or did it create a curiosity, with built-up demand?
The FAA had a big chore. The agency was charged with integrating a bunch of small airplanes that no one is riding in (drones) into the airspace where there are passengers. This was a monumental challenge. The FAA turned the challenge into an opportunity and created an atmosphere of safety. The regulations are keeping people focused on giving each other ample space in which to fly. And in their process, the FAA has managed to encourage people to seek education and be legally qualified to fly a drone. Certainly, confusion, concern and fear could have been out there, because people didn’t know what to expect, but that has been put to the wayside. The regulations are giving users the peace of mind to confidently fly drones for commercial use.
How have drones changed precision ag?
Growing up as a farm kid, I find this technology so exciting and so impactful. I remember my grandfather pointing down the row and saying, “Go get that milkweed.” And I would run into the field to remove the offending weed. As time has gone on, we’ve had advances in management, machinery, chemistries and inputs. Precision ag allows us to track what goes in the field, but you don’t know how it emerged and when. Drones are a wonderful way to confirm that your system is functioning the way you designed. The goal is to collect data and someone is able to use it to make a decision.
What kind of data can be collected with a drone?
From a sensor perspective, until recently it’s been hard to do anything but take a picture, and candidly, that still provides a lot of value. Today, we build sensors that are not onl
y being used to collect images, but collect data and process that data right on board the sensor, in real-time, before the aircraft lands. The sophistication of the sensors dramatically shortens the time between sensing and response. All of this technology is moving forward at warp speed. Today we can collect specific data such as high-resolution color, near-infrared, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data, thermal imagery as well as 4K video.
Why should retailers consider drones as a tool for their business?
The more obvious opportunity is it’s a technology they can employ immediately. If a retailer can process data, every pixel has a value. Or if it’s something in a non-visual range (thermals, NDVI), the true value is created when retailers can provide analysis against it. There’s benefit to showing a customer they receive more value from you [the retailer] than ever before. It becomes a very, very powerful sales tool.
What makes Sentera different from other companies in this segment of the industry?
Sentera is a total solutions provider—focused on the sensor and the data it collects. So we don’t just build airplanes, sensors or software. We do all of those things in concert together. We know exactly what the sensor is doing and what data is being collected. We know what the airplane is doing—the altitude, speed and overlap of the flight pattern. And then we take that information and bring that into the solution. Our team has 220 cumulative years of experience in unmanned aerial and sensing technologies. I am a commercially rated pilot and have been flying for 34 years. Every one of our sensors has an inertial measurement unit in it, allowing our sensors to know if it is yawing to the left or rolling to the right and adjusts to ensure imagery is crisp, clear and ultra-precise. Sentera projects all this data on to a map, bringing it all together in our data management system, AgVault. We have a business-to-business model, working directly with implement manufacturers, seed producers, advisers and crop consultants, to understand where the value lies for their particular applications. Sentera then injects our technology in our customers’ process where it adds value. We sell our products on five continents and in over 30 countries.
With any setbacks in the launch of the company, how did you keep your team motivated and encouraged?
Every organization, from a start-up to a Fortune 50 company, has setbacks. What makes Sentera unique, as well as keeps the team motivated and encouraged, is the problems we are solving will be considered “industry firsts” down the road. Sentera engineers have a long list of drone-industry firsts, starting with the first gimballed camera on a drone. Perseverance pays off, and the team sees this. They know they are creating and designing solutions no one else in the industry has accomplished, so it is up to them to find solutions to problems that to date have been unsolvable. The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep, and being able to blaze new paths for such a dynamic industry is incredibly motivating.
What’s next for drones in ag?
We have at least a 10-year horizon of data analytics that will be created, deployed and implemented. Many issues that drones will solve in the future haven’t even been thought of today. In the years to come, you’ll see more and more data analytics and processing on the sensors before the aircraft is on the ground, which will continue to increase efficiencies and make way for additional technologies to emerge. One Midwest customer is using a multispectral sensor to fly over the field and in real-time identify the weed species in the field and if the weeds are herbicide resistant. That’s a peek behind the curtain of what’s transpiring.