VIDEO: Farming from above

Crop scouting aircraft downloads pictures instantly to help farmers assess trouble spots

GWYNNE, Alta. — The joke in Bret Chilcott’s family was that the Kansas farm boy wasted all the money he earned working on his father’s farm on flying lessons and model aircraft.

Chilcott has now combined his knowledge of farming, flying and model aircraft to design and build a plane to map agricultural land.

“This is about the resulting images that help farmers with real costs,” Chilcott said during the first Canadian demonstration of his AgEagle held April 11.

Unlike most other crop scouting aircraft, the AgEagle downloads pictures from the field instantly onto a computer in a usable form. It takes 17 minutes to fly over and photograph a quarter section field.

When Chilcott first met with U.S. farmers about the airplane design, their top three concerns were landing the aircraft, launching and flying it and downloading and processing the data.

“Their No. 1 concern was how to land it,” Chilcott said during a demonstration of the 56-inch fixed-wing airplane.

The AgEagle uses software from DroneDeploy, which allows the airplane’s route, landing and take-off spot to be preprogrammed. The software communicates with the airplane via cellphone frequency and can land it on its own.

Don Macyk, who farms near Waskatenau, Alta., can see the appeal of aerial scouting. For example, aerial photographs could give a farmer more information when deciding whether to keep or rip up a winter-killed winter wheat field.

“It gives a much better sense of what proportions are optimal or suboptimal in the field,” Macyk said.

The airplane doesn’t eliminate field scouting, but it may reduce the amount of time that scouts and farmers spend assessing and looking for trouble, he said.

“When you see something from above, you see things differently than on the ground.”

Norm Lamothe of Cavan, Ont., has signed on to be an AgEagle dealer in his area but also plans to use the aircraft to scout his soybeans as well as other nearby fields.

“In our area it will be used to predict yield maps mid-season and identify the areas we should be walking.”

Airplane, launcher, training, support and enough data for 16,000 acres costs $19,950, as well as an annual $2,250 fee, said Markus Weber, a co-owner of AgEagle Canada, along with Don Hoover and their consulting company Serecon of Edmonton.

Mapping costs 19 cents an acre after 16,000 acres.

Weber said it is unlikely that wheat, barley and canola growers will use more than 16,000 acres of mapping data, unless they run into problems with pests or insects.

The digital maps can be emailed to an agronomist or other experts to help identify problems or monitor growth throughout the season.

Chilcott said he funded the company by touring the aircraft through corn and soybean areas of the United States.

He said 140 have been sold and are in use in Canada and the U.S., and he expects to sell an additional 500 to 700 airplanes this year.

Contact mary.macarthur@producer.com

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