Groups fund UAS research in precision ag, forestry

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New funding from Oregon BEST and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to a startup company working with Oregon State University could help Oregon become a national leader in the development and use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) ­ or drones in precision agriculture and forestry applications.

The UAS technology being developed by HoneyComb Corp. could potentially save farmers irrigation, fertilizer and labor costs by pinpointing areas where crops are stressed so farmers can respond locally, reducing input costs, decreasing runoff, and boosting yields. In forestry, the drones-and-data system could help determine tree counts, stand density and areas of disease or pest infestation, enabling growers to more efficiently estimate timber value from the air before performing labor-intensive, on-the-ground timber cruising.

The $150,000 from Oregon BEST and the PDC is helping the Wilsonville, Ore. startup collaborate with OSU researchers to verify that data collected by the company's UAS flying over croplands and forests is accurate. Part of the funding supports data collection and analysis known as ground truthing, or sending technicians into the field to gather data on the ground to compare with remote sensing data collected by aerial photography, infrared images, etc.

"Rather than someone walking a 1,000-acre field looking for areas of crop stress, our system can survey that acreage in an hour and analyze the data so a farmer can see where the issues are and hone in on those areas," said Ryan Jenson, CEO and one of the three cofounders of the company. "Part of the Oregon BEST funding is allowing us to correlate and validate this data, so we have third-party verification of the efficacy of our information."

The HoneyComb system measures reflectance in the visible and near-infrared spectrum, which can be used to calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), an indicator of crop stress. In imagery, healthy and vigorous plants are colored "green," whereas highly stressed plants are "red." This allows growers, farm consultants, or service providers to quickly hone in on problem areas.

The technology doesn't yet determine what's wrong with plants, but that they are under stress, which could be from a lack of water or fertilizer, encroachment of weeds, over-irrigation, etc. The funding is also enabling HoneyComb to add thermal imaging technology to the system, which will indicate moisture levels in plants and show where irrigation needs adjustment.

"We're pleased to be partnering with the PDC to help this Oregon startup compete in an arena where Oregon's rich history of agricultural and forestry research intersect with our strengths in high technology innovation," said David Kenney, President and Executive Director of Oregon BEST. "Precision agriculture will dramatically improve the efficiency of global food production and this partnership will help position Oregon as a leader in this emerging sector."    

What distinguishes HoneyComb from its competitors, Jenson said, is the relatively low cost of the drone and the integrated backend data analysis that is seamless, easy for growers to use and reliable.

"People tend to underestimate what farmers and others want," Jenson said. "They want data that's backed up by research, so having OSU ­ a major university with strong ag and forestry programs ­­ work with us on this, we can say they did the ground truthing and correlated our data and the technology works."

Michael Wing, Assistant Professor of Geomatics in the OSU College of Forestry and Director of OSU's Aerial Information Systems Laboratory, is overseeing the OSU side of the project. The funding will allow the lab to purchase a HoneyComb UAS and use it to collect data from OSU forest land, then compare that to surveys conducted from the ground and a LiDAR database.

"The project is funding a graduate student who is very good at biometrics and geomatics and will provide the field verification to make HoneyComb's product a turn-key solution," Wing said. "Farmers won't have to worry about analyzing the data because they will get it all geo-referenced and mapped so it's immediately useful to them."

The timing of the OSU-HoneyComb collaboration coincides with the recent Federal Aviation Administration's selection of six UAS test site operators that will allow the agency to develop research findings and operational experiences to help ensure the safe integration of UAS into the nation's airspace. Oregon is part of a test operation that includes Alaska and Hawaii, with three different test sites located in Oregon ­ near Tillamook, Pendleton, and Warm Springs.

"We're hoping to be one of the first to use the new UAS test sites, which allow us to partner with a university on the research component and to publish the results," Jenson said. "There is a lot of buzz nationally about these new sites because they should really streamline FAA approval."

HoneyComb test flights and data collection will also take place through OSU's Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center near Pendleton over crop fields located within the new UAS test site near there.

"In addition to data validation and system operating feedback, we're also playing a key role for HoneyComb because only public institutions can sponsor current UAS flights," Wing said. "We were the first public institution in Oregon to be registered with the FAA."

He said the timing is ideal and Oregon is well positioned to grow its fledging UAS industry.

"The potential is incredible," Wing said. "Winning the FAA national test site competition and having three areas located in Oregon is a real advantage for our state, which is a hotbed of UAS startups and research."

The State of Oregon recently launched the Oregon Unmanned Aerial Systems Business Enterprise, a new Oregon InC initiative aimed at helping make Oregon a leader in civilian UAS development and foster UAS-related economic activity in the State.

HoneyComb was selected as one of 15 Showcase Companies at the Clean Tech Forum in San Francisco last week and ultimately won the Judge's Choice Award in the Entrepreneur Showcase. The company is also one of five semi-finalists selected to compete in the final round in OEN's Angel Oregon Spring 2014 Investment Term in April.

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