Oct. 15, 2018
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are already being used at an increasing rate in agriculture for various needs. In fact, venture capital firms have invested over US$571 million in drones in the last three years alone, mostly for image and data collection. One use for UAVs in agriculture that is starting to gain traction is the use of UAVs as a means for agrichemical application.
Currently, most farmers and custom applicators spray agrichemicals on their fields behind slow-moving tractors. The process is clunky, labor intensive, time sensitive and even dangerous at times. Admittedly, this common system works, but it is costly and leads to overuse of agrichemicals. Overuse of chemicals leads to resistance and makes it hard to kill superweeds. Farmers would like to apply agrichemicals at a variable rate and spot spray, but existing technology makes it hard to accomplish this.
Ott isn’t alone in his vision for UAVs as a modern-day solution to the woes of agrichemical application. The drone industry has already recognized the potential market for sprayer drones, with many options now available, and at least one company advertising a semi-autonomous fleet that would enable one worker to manage up to 10 drones at once.
“Agriculture is considered a prime area of potential growth in the drone industry because of the technology’s ability to help survey crops and gather real-time information on farmlands,” the Wall Street Journal reported in November 2015, highlighting China-based drone maker DJI’s foray into “agra drones”, which now sell at some $13,000.
The idea for Rantizo came to Ott after he founded another precision ag startup that developed a seed coating that delivered nitrogen directly to seeds as they germinated, to spur early growth. He recruited Matt Beckwith, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant who grew up on a Nebraska farm, and the seed for Rantizo was planted.
Rantizo’s technology-based platform centers around UAV agrichemical application and aims to solve these problems through not just the drone itself, but the introduction of technology within the pesticide application. One of the key features of the Rantizo platform will be electrostatic sprayers that impart a charge on the agrichemical. The charge causes the chemical to repel itself and wrap around the surface of the plants – even the underside of leaves – to maximize its effectiveness. “This results in a very even coating, as low as one ounce per acre,” Ott explained. “It wraps around the top and bottom of the leaf.”
The electrostatic sprayers also compensate for one limitation of drones, which is their inability to carry a lot of weight. While conventional sprayer systems heavily dilute agrichemicals, Rantizo’s UAV will deliver it in an undiluted form, but at the same dosage rate as is required by the label, making the application process highly efficient and cost effective.
Reducing chemical usage will also combat a growing concern for farmers, Ott said. “All of the work is being done by the chemical right now,” he said. “What happens, is some resistance occurs to a herbicide, so more chemical is applied, which increases resistance, so more chemical is applied. You get caught in this negative feedback loop.”
Farmers would once identify weed infestations and insect damage by walking through their fields or driving to accessible areas, but in recent years, they’ve been able to save time by subscribing to satellite services that allow them to inspect their crops from their laptop or tablet.
With the benefit of satellite images, Ott said farmers now have a new challenge. At a time when weed or pest infestations are worse, there’s often a serious bottleneck in high-demand services such as custom chemical applicators and crop dusters, which spray with airplanes or helicopters. They’re also often prevented from treating problem areas with their own equipment because of wet soil. Heavy equipment making repeated trips over soil leads to compaction and yield loss. "As a researcher, it has always frustrated me when I couldn’t get into the field to spray in a timely manner because of wet soils. I can only imagine the frustration that growers face. Drones would certainly help alleviate that problem," said Professor Rick Foster of Purdue.
Drone spraying, by contrast is “much more agile”, said Ott. The farmer or custom applicator can apply the herbicide just when the weeds are emerging, reducing the volume of herbicide needed and eliminating soil compaction concerns.
Initially, Ott said, Rantizo’s customers will be custom applicators. “The custom applicators are experienced ag chemical users, with the training and certification needed to meet applicable regulations. That doesn’t mean they’ll have all the certifications needed for the Rantizo platform.” According to Ott, Rantizo users will be expected to secure a drone operator certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Safety concerns remain about operating drones for commercial purposes in civilian areas, but Ott believes agricultural uses are a good place to begin integrating them into the economy because the operations will take place in areas away from intense human activity. Although not quite the full blown orchestrated dance of drones just yet, Rantizo is currently conducting trials of its platform using an octocopter-style UAV and plans to bring its initial product to the market in 2019.