A $150,000 grant will help a Wilsonville, Ore., company and Oregon State University document the effectiveness of drone aircraft in detecting plant health problems, soil and water conditions and disease or pest outbreaks.
The grant will allow OSU researchers to validate information provided by a drone developed by HoneyComb Corp., an ambitious startup founded in Portland and which recently moved to manufacturing space in Wilsonville, a suburb south of Portland. Verifying information gathered by camera and sensor-equipped drones flying over farm and forests is a crucial step in “ground-truthing” the effectiveness of unmanned aerial systems.
The grant funding comes from the Portland Development Commission and Oregon BEST, a state agency that funds beginning businesses. Oregon BEST – the acronym stands for Built Environment and Sustainable Technology – has increasingly taken an interest in funding agricultural technology.
Researchers and experts in what’s called “precision agriculture” believe drones can save farmers and forest managers time and money by pinpointing areas of water, fertilizer or pesticide problems. They also could help with inventory or provide crop yield or timber value information, researchers believe.
Agricultural and forestry use of drone technology originally developed for the military is a hot topic, and multiple companies and universities are jumping into field. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates drone technology will produce an $82 billion economic impact and create more than 100,000 jobs by 2025.
HoneyComb Corp., founded by engineer and entrepreneur Ryan Jenson and two friends, makes the AgDrone, which sports a 5-foot wingspan and is powered by a 700 watt electric motor. The company sells the drone for $15,000 and processes data from its cameras and sensors on a per-acre fee. The drone comes in a hard-shell case designed so a farmer can throw it into the back of a pickup and take it to the field, where it’s launched by hand and follows a programmed or manually-directed flight path.
The Federal Aviation Administration has not yet approved drones for commercial flight, however, unless it is in conjunction with university research. In this case, HoneyComb is working with Michael Wing, an assistant professor of geomatics, or earth mapping, at OSU’s College of Forestry. He’s also director of OSU’s Aerial Information Systems Laboratory. The grant funding will allow OSU to buy an AgDrone, use it to collect data from OSU forest land, and compare that information to ground surveys and to an existing LIDAR database.
In other developments, a non-profit called Oregon Unmanned Aerial Systems Business Enterprise has set up shop in Bend, and three spots in the state have been chosen as UAS test sites.