Interview with Dr. Ernest Earon
It’s a fact, farming drones are going to become common place in the farming world. Providing farmers with crucial information regarding their crops, these flying devices have already started to become an essential item of farm equipment. Agriaffaires sat down for an interview with Dr. Ernest Earon, CTO & Founder of PrecisionHawk, a drone company that is focused on providing high quality data to farmers, when and where it’s needed. He tells us about the importance of collecting quality data and providing farmers with analytical tools to work on that data and understand what is happening at the field level.
Drones are used for data collection. Can you give some precise examples regarding the data that can be retrieved and how it can be used to improve farmers’ lives?
One of my favorite examples would be a cornfield after a storm, for instance. Previously, the insurance company would negotiate with the farmer based on the severity of the storm, past experience, and they would come to an agreement. It’s hardly a quantitative measurement of what the actual claim should be. With the drone, you throw it, it takes off, collects the data, lands, you can have all the information at your fingertips in the field, on a smartphone, in 30 minutes, with a full view of the field.
Another good one would be something like potato blight for instance. It’s a very fast moving pathogen and you want to be able to identify it as rapidly as possible. Current practice is that when the weather conditions are right, you immediately start to apply the fungicides to prevent it, which is a very expensive proposition. People do that because the speed at which the pathogen can move through crops is 3 days and the crop is lost. With a drone, you can be flying it every single day over your fields and only apply fungicides when you start to see the effects of the blight, before it has progressed enough that it is too late to do anything about it.
Do large farms have the monopole of drone usage?
Not necessarily. That is a very strong benefit of a drone in that it can collect very good quality information over an area, even if you look at something fairly small. If you are looking at a couple of acres of corn, it’s really difficult to get a big picture of a field of mature corn by moving into it. If you are looking at higher value crops, vegetables, things like melons and soft fruits, their time to harvest is very key. It’s not just size that makes a difference, so even for relatively small farms, there is very high value in a system like ours. It can be useful to any grower that has an information intensive process.
Can one drone be used for all types of climates, soils and crops?
The drone itself is really just the start of the information pipeline. It is not the full system, it is the beginning, so the quality of the data is of course contingent on how good that start of the pipeline is. That’s why we manufacture our own drones, because it’s purpose-built to collect high quality data. But the main thing is that you are able to fly a sensor that gives you the information that you need. You can then progress into the analytical tool chain which we have up in the cloud and process it there. So yes, if a drone carries the appropriate sensor over a given field and collects it at high enough quality and high enough resolution for the task at hand, then you could use one platform for all different crops or geographies. The most important piece is that the quality and the sensor is good enough to allow the analytics to produce something that’s viable.
What are the regulations surrounding drone use at the moment? Do you need a license to fly a drone? Can farmers fly their drones freely above their fields?
It really depends where you are in the world. Many jurisdictions are taking different approaches. Generally speaking though, around the world, it is possible to get a drone, fly it over a farm field and collect information. Some countries require more paper work than others. Globally the aviation authorities are coming to a good consensus on smaller drones by agreeing that they require less oversight than bigger drones. The amount of licensing or certification or requirement for an operator is much less than people thought it would be originally. Most regulators are not asking operators to become pilots anymore, although they talked about that at the beginning. The regulations are moving in a very positive direction. In most places throughout the world, it is possible to operate now and relatively easily over rural areas, which is very positive in this application.
Drones seem to come in different shapes. What difference does it make in the drone’s usability?
Yes, there is quite a variety. Generally speaking it boils down to two different classes. There are things that look like an airplane, like ours, the benefits of those is that they can fly further and carry heavier weight. In our case the decision was made to go down that route because when you’re looking at farmers’ fields, being able to fly several hundred hectares in a single flight is important. In the case of a quadcopter or multirotor, which is often what people think about when they think about drones, little things with multiple rotors on them, those are very simple to use because they take off straight up. You do not need to throw them and they also come straight down. They tend to have trouble staying aloft for a long time when they are carrying heavy payloads. That’s the split.
PrecisionHawk is working hard to bridge that gap because we try to make it as easy as possible for customers to use these airplanes. If it is not easy and simple, if it does not go with the farmers’ workflow, they will not use it. One thing that we have learnt very quickly is no matter how good the system is, if it does not fit in with their day to day operations, they can’t use it. That is something we are constantly driving towards. That includes our data analysis, our cloud services and our mobile applications. Those are all part of the picture of making it as easy, intuitive and natural as possible to get to these answers.
How much assistance and time is needed to learn how to fly PrecisionHawk’s drone, the Lancaster?
If you are able to throw a paper airplane, you can throw one of these. Because the aircraft does all the flight planning and all the data collection. It takes off and returns back all by itself. It gets an estimate of the wind and the weather conditions. It figures out the best way to survey your farm based on what is happening around it and humans actually never need to take control and fly it. We do offer a couple of days’ worth of training. That includes data analysis training and regulatory work. Many regulators also require users to be familiar with how to fly a toy airplane, just in case there is a need to take control. These systems are getting very easy to use and at PrecisionHawk, our focus is entirely at making sure that as a grower, you set up the sites that you are interested in online. That information then goes to the aircraft and you don’t have to do any programming. You just take it out and say this is where I am and fly it. Depending on what data product or what answer you need to get, the airplane will fly differently and get you that answer.
How long do you think it is going to take before all farmers are equipped with drones?
I think that this technology is going to change the way farmers operate. They are going to look back and say “How did I ever go by without it?” in a very similar way to autosteer. Ten years ago if somebody said “I‘m going to let my tractor drive itself”, a lot of people would have said “You’re crazy”. But nowadays, if a farmer does not use autosteer everybody thinks they are crazy. Within 10 years, I expect that drones will be very common place. People will just accept them or take them for granted as part of the work flow.