CLACKAMAS, Ore. — Stephen Burtt has seen the future and it’s. ... wait, let him ask you: Have you seen “Star Wars?”
Drones are everywhere in those movies, Burtt says. Doing jobs in the background, delivering goods, fixing things — their presence is so routine that no one even notices.
And that, he says, could be the future of American farms. A drone, perhaps one of his Aerial Technology International multi-rotored Quadcopters, launches itself in the morning to carry out pre-programmed tasks. Flying over the field, it uses sensors and cameras to look for diseases and pests, take inventory, check irrigation, assemble yield information or make harvest decisions.
Returning to its charging station, it downloads the information to the farmer or even to other machines, which move out on their own to pick, spray, water, cut or till.
“It’s terrestrial and airborne robots that run the farm of the future,” Burtt says.
Burtt’s three-year-old company, founded with his boyhood friend Lawrence Dennis, is among the startup tech firms aiming to get a piece of the action. Doubters question the cost and usefulness of the technology, but multiple companies and universities are engaged in research while waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to set rules for commercial use of drones.
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. Many in the field see agriculture as a key opportunity for growth, in part because farmers eagerly seek data and are early adopters of technology that can save them time and money.
The Pacific Northwest is home to major drone developers such as Insitu Inc. and other companies. A fledgling company in Wilsonville, Ore., HoneyComb Corp., makes a fixed-wing AgDrone that it is marketing to farmers. Burtt’s company uses miniature helicopters; he believes the vertical take-off and landing capability makes it easier to launch, control and land.
He and partner Dennis, whom he’s known since seventh grade and who worked on helicopters in the military, teamed up in business about eight years ago.
They originally were drawn to the idea of using drones for mapping and shooting films. “The idea just grabbed me,” Burtt says. “If we can get a camera in the air, we can have a business.”
The development of brushless motor gimbals, which hold a mounted camera steady even if the craft carrying it bucks and bobs, provided video that was “beautiful and cinematic,” Burtt says.
ATI, the company they founded three years ago, has nine employees and concentrates on building and selling unmanned aerial systems; some custom, some out-of-the-box ready to fly. The company prides itself on training users.
“If someone buys an ag drone from us, we better make sure they succeed with it,” he says.
While some copters go for mapping and filming purposes, agricultural uses appear to hold promise, Burtt says.
Agronomists “all seem to think it’s invaluable,” he says. Most demonstration requests have come from vineyard operators, who appear to be keenly interested.
Bugs need to be worked out, starting with FAA approval. Business privacy is another concern to address. “Some farmers are very concerned about where their data goes,” Burtt says. “They don’t want their data to leave their farm.”
But Burtt is confident his company is on the right track.
“The vision of the future farm is robotic,” he says.
Occupation: CEO and co-owner of Aerial Technology International in Clackamas, Ore. Boyhood friend Lawrence Dennis is co-owner and chief technology officer.
Background: Born in England, moved with his family to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Milwaukie, Ore.
Education: Not an engineer, holds a bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution from Portland State University. “You have no idea how much conflict there is in this industry,” he says with a laugh.
Entrepreneurial spark: The excitement, challenge and element of risk that comes from doing “something that no one has ever done before.”