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Eye in the Sky

By Staff | Feb 2, 2014

If two men from Winnebago have their way, the skies over Faribault County will soon be filled with drone aircraft.

No, the planes will not be spying for the government, dropping any smart bombs or even delivering packages for Amazon.com.

Instead, they will be giving farmers and ag-related businesses a way to get a bird’s eye view of what is going on in the fields of rural Faribault County.

And, much, much more.

“The official name for them isn’t drones,” says Dan Weerts, one of the founders and co-owners of a new company in Winnebago called Leading Edge Technologies. “The actual term is UAV or unmanned aerial vehicle.”

Whatever the name, Weerts and his partner, Todd Golly, want to sell as many of the pilotless small planes as they can.

Their company offers two different aircraft. One is the eBee model from senseFly. The other is called WingScan from a company named FourthWing Vireo.

Both are far from being a typical radio-controlled model airplane. They are much more high-tech.

For instance, a person on the ground does not use a radio control unit to pilot the plane.

“It is all done with a computer,” Weerts explains. “A computer operates the entire flight of the plane.”

The flight plan of the plane is preloaded into the computer program and controls the takeoff, entire mission and the landing.

“We basically tell it where we want it to fly, how high, how many passes and where to land,” Weerts says. “And it will come in within inches of where we have designated it to set down.”

In 20 minutes the drone plane will have criss-crossed over 160 acres, taking hundreds of images on a camera and relayed it all back to the computer.

“It would take a person a full day to walk those 160 acres and they wouldn’t see it all,” Weerts says. “The UAV can scan over 1,000 acres in a day.”

And see everything.

Not only does the computer receive the images of the field, it also analyzes what it sees.

Things such as plant population (number of them in an area), size of plants, growth stages, weed detection, location and identification, areas of nitrogen loss, drainage tiles, moisture issues, crop residues and soil types are all analyzed.

Golly says the drone both replaces and complements traditional field scouting.

“It shows many things a person would miss,” he says. “And unlike a satellite image, it gives instant feedback, on any field, at any time. Or as many times as the farmer wants.”

He says a recent test pass over a field near Winnebago resulted in 256 photos over the 40 acres. The pictures were “stitched” together by the computer to give an overall view of the land.

It will even create a 3-D topography map of the area.

“This is a wonderful tool,” Weerts says. “Not just for farmers but also for co-ops, seed dealers, utilities, real estate people and county officials.”

The two men say the Federal Aviation Authority has predicted that by the year 2020 there will be 200,000 drone aircraft employed in ag-related industries alone.

“They (the FAA) have until next year, 2015, to make up their minds on how they are going to regulate this,” Weerts says. “But the rule is farmers and landowners can use them over their own property.”

There are some FAA rules, however. The planes cannot weigh over four pounds or fly over 400 feet high so as not to interfere with air traffic and cause accidents similar to a bird strike.

“Our eBee model weighs under two pounds and we usually fly at 250 feet anyway, for optimal photos,” Golly says. “So we don’t have a problem.”

Leading Edge Technologies is located at 618 South Main Street in Winnebago, in the building which formerly housed the Winnie-Mart convenience store.

The two men have totally remodeled the building, creating offices, reception area, a classroom and a maintenance work shop area.

The classroom, which contains some modern technology itself, is where the two owners plan on instructing their customers how to use the drone aircraft and the computer programs that come with them.

Plus, drone aircraft are not the only products or technology the two men are selling in their new company.

“We have Davis Instruments, a precision weather monitoring system for homes, schools, industry and agriculture,” Golly says. “Unlike other weather stations, this one actually works.”

They also market OPI Integris grain management systems.

“Part of it is a temperature and moisture probe for grain,” Golly says. “But, it is designed to do much more, and protect grain all season long.”

Weerts adds that farmers keep a watchful eye on their crop all summer long when it is in the ground, but after harvest they “throw it in a tin can (grain bin) and forget it.”

The OPI system is a way to protect it in the bin. It can monitor it and add or remove moisture as needed.

“The system can control bin fans,” Weerts says. “It is a ‘smart’ system and can help reduce energy costs by 60 percent. That means it can pay for itself in savings in a year and a half.”

But despite the variety of technology they offer, the two businessmen admit the big draw is the drone aircraft.

“Just saying the word ‘drone’ seems to get people’s attention,” Weerts says. “They want to know more.”

The two do admit to having one problem getting enough inventory for the possible demand.

Right now they have only been alloted 10 of the eBee model.

“There are only 100 being distributed in the whole country this spring,” Weerts says. “And we got 10 of them. We might be able to get more later, if we need to.”

They are anticipating a high demand in Faribault County.

“The fact that they are drone aircraft is the fun thing,” Weerts says. “But the diagnostics they provide to a farmer is the big thing.”