Daniel Scheiner believes he has the next tool farmers will be using to scout their crops, detect disease and pests, and increase yields to meeting growing demands.
“Drones are cool,” Scheiner said grinning, as he used a handset to demonstrate a number of the maneuvers for the white plastic unmanned aerial vehicle.
He is the CEO and chief remote pilot of Skyraider Aeronautics, a commercial drone service startup in Augusta that plans to focus its business on serving the agricultural community.
While serving in the military from 2007 to 2011, Scheiner got interested in unmanned vehicles. And from the time he got out until a few weeks ago, he served as a defense contractor.
“I can say that I worked on drone systems in the military,” he said, but could not be more specific. Over the past couple of years, as federal regulations on UAV and drones have become better defined, he has been looking into practical applications for the technology he loves and discovered there is huge growth potential for drone use in agriculture.
“And here in east Georgia, there are literally farms in every direction from us,” he said.
Information was recently released by the University of Georgia Extension Service about a team of crop scientists and engineers from the school who are developing all-terrain rovers and aerial drones to collect data on crop health.
Scheiner said these devices can be outfitted with multi-spectral and thermal cameras, as well as other technologies, to help researchers and farmers measure stress tolerance, growth patterns, soil temperature, water distribution in fields and even nitrogen levels in individual plants.
On a computer screen in his office, Scheiner opens a satellite image of a field planted in even rows. The field is highlighted and there is a single unbroken line drawn over the crop, designating a flight path.
The drone flies this path, takes photos and stitches them together in either two-dimensional images or three-dimensional models.
“What that means is we can look at crops and see that there’s not enough water here,” he said. “There’s too much water there. Soil temperature is too hot or too cold. You have possible pests, possible disease. These plants seem to be stunted. This way we can help farmers react to these threats. They can go out and say, we need to add more fertilizer or we need to add more pesticide, that sort of thing.”
Scheiner has been in conversations with UGA PhD candidate Calvin Meeks, who plans to graduate in May with an advanced degree in crop and soil science. Over the last few years, Meeks has been working on projects using aerial images of cotton plants and analyzing the green and red lights reflected from their leaves to trigger irrigation.
“What we found is that there was a strong correlation between the amount of green light reflected and the amount of yield you end up with at the end of the year,” Meeks said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on looking at plant health.”
At UGA’s Iron Horse Plant Sciences Farm near Watkinsville last year, scientists including UGA’s Engineering Professor Changying “Charlie” Li collected 20 terabytes of data from robotics like these. The researchers are using this data to create an algorithm Li says will eventually be able to identify, count and map the numbers of flowers on each plant in a sea of green leaves.
Scheiner said this is the same type of “intelligent” algorithm social media companies use for facial recognition, such as how Facebook knows that is a picture of you in your sister’s news feed.
Meeks and Scheiner agree it may be some time before this type of drone is in common use in the States. This is partly due to cost, but will primarily require a loosening of federal regulations to allow for heavier weight equipment and line-of-sight waivers for unmanned craft.
“When it does take off, this industry is just going to explode,” Meeks said.
His current fleet of aircraft can provide detailed and comprehensive crop damage assessments. They can take footage early in a growing season. After a tornado, hail storm or unseasonal freeze, they can go back and have a clear comparison for the insurance companies.
As a small startup currently with just four employees, Skyraider Aeronautics is looking for both agricultural customers and investors.
The company is also offering remote pilot certification classes that help drone enthusiasts get their commercial license. The government just released the test for this certification in the fall of 2016.
“We’re working on a boot camp or course that can take a person from never having flown a drone before to being proficient on the platform, knowing how to talk to air traffic control, and how to fill out waivers and legal requirements, and maintenance logs,” Scheiner said. “What we would really love is to work with crop dusters as consultants and develop a way for us to train them, and get them up and running so they can provide this additional service.”
The limitations right now, he said, are purely governmental. Commercial UAV pilots cannot fly any device heavier than 55 pounds or pilot a device out of their line of sight.
“Startups today don’t fail today because we can’t build the product,” Scheiner said. “We have to prove that it is a service that people want to buy, that it is affordable and we have to get the regulations off our back.”