Drones take flight for agriculture

157 innovators from 47 countries take on the future of agricultural drone technology

A Farmer Looking At A Drone In The Sky

Steven Landwehr doesn’t use drones on his 3,000-acre and 6,000-cow dairy operation…yet. Why? Drones are labor and time intensive. He doesn’t have the time to fly and manage the drone on his own, let alone analyze the data collected as it buzzes above his fields. But after hosting three finalists competing in the Land O’Lakes Prize: Drone Challenge at his farm earlier this fall, he’s optimistic about the future of drone technology.

In February when we launched the Land O’Lakes Prize: Drone Challenge, a crowdsourcing competition managed in connection with HeroX and with judging support from the University of Minnesota, we did so to accelerate the development of drone technology, making drones more usable for farmers like Steven.

With more than 157 competitors from 47 countries participating in the challenge, one thing is clear: there is energy and passion for innovating solutions that help farmers make more informed decisions for their operation.

“We felt we needed to help guide and encourage these innovators to help us solve the problems farmers face in the field,” says Mike Macrie, Land O’Lakes’ chief information officer. “Whether it’s weather, wind, battery life, autonomy or data collection, the challenges are a lot more complex than people think. I think our drone challenge helped demonstrate that.”

Drones take flight

On Sept. 20-22, judges from the University of Minnesota and ag tech experts from WinField United gathered at Westland Dairy, Steven’s operation, in Watkins, Minnesota, to assess the three finalists’ proposed solutions in a closed, live judging event spanning three farm fields.

First up? Sandhills Robotics, a robotics company whose team members drove 24 hours straight to Minnesota from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Their drone was developed to fly for 25 minutes and cover 200 acres using a multispectral camera to take images of the field. Those images then generate maps to help farmers understand their field’s stressors – insights that can ultimately help them increase yield. Sandhills Robotics even had the opportunity to showcase their drone on KARE 11–Twin Cities’ local NBC news affiliate.

‚ÄčTraveling the furthest was CreateUAS, a team of 11 undergraduates–computer, software, electrical, and aerospace engineers–from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. With prior competing in medical drone technology challenges and once they caught wind of the Land O’Lakes Prize: Drone Challenge, they jumped at the opportunity to study the agriculture industry and learn how they could make an impact.

Our third team of finalists, American Robotics from Boston, Massachusetts, nearly met all of the criteria laid out for the challenge. This startup’s solution demonstrated abilities which include autonomous flight planning and data collection, autonomous charging, ruggedized housing, and precision navigation. As a result, they are set to unveil their product commercially before the end of 2017.

“It was interesting to see the technology and be a part of what’s coming out and soon to be available to farmers,” says Steven. “Being able to meet with the people that are developing the technology and helping to answer their questions about how drones can be more applicable to us was great. We’re excited about the autonomous aspect of drones. We want to get more precise, quality data to help us make better decisions about our fields on every square inch.”

In the end, no team met all the requirements of the challenge, but each finalist was awarded a $5,000 consolation prize in recognition of their contributions. As a member-owned cooperative, Land O’Lakes understands the power of working together. After generating attention from competitors around the globe, we’re excited about the future of drone technology to advance agriculture intelligently, together.

“We’re excited that this challenge was really on the leading edge of what is capable with today’s technology. We think drones offer great opportunity for us and our members today. It’s an exciting area to be exploring,” says Mike. “Our WinField United team working with ag retailers are out there every day figuring out how to produce more with less and all of these technologies help our members be better in everything they do.”