A Portland company makes a play to be the "Henry Ford" of applying drone technology to agriculture.
Company aims to be the ‘Henry Ford’ of bringing drone technology to farms
By Eric Mortenson
CANBY, Ore. — Demonstration day is accompanied by the chilly trappings of winter in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Thick fog drapes the hillsides and reduces visibility in the grass seed field to a couple hundred yards. Low overhead, a passing squad of honking geese suddenly falters and breaks formation.
They’ve heard a new bird above them, one that buzzes with a 700-watt electric motor and sees with sensors that capture visual, spectral and thermal information. It weighs 5 pounds and has a wingspan just shy of 5 feet, and many believe it and similar aircraft will transform agriculture. This one, developed by HoneyComb Corp. of Portland, is called the AgDrone.
It’s military technology turned to farm use. Equipped with sensors or cameras, drones can take inventory, detect irrigation or fertilizer problems or spot pest and disease outbreaks — potentially saving farmers time and money. They can download images and information, and direct farmers or even other machines to specific field locations for spot treatment.
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., formed by three young entrepreneurs from small Oregon towns, intends to be at the forefront of the boom. They’re moving the business this month from start-up space owned by Portland State University to a manufacturing spot in Wilsonville, a suburb 18 miles south of Portland. The trio say they’re ready to take orders: $15,000 buys a drone in a hard case that can be tossed in the back of a pickup and taken to the field. HoneyComb will process the data for a per acre fee.
Bigger, more established companies are pursuing the agricultural market as well, but outsiders are impressed by HoneyComb’s focus. Michael Wing, an Oregon State University forestry professor involved in drone research, sums up what he sees in the group: “Its vision.”
HoneyComb’s founder and CEO, Ryan Jenson, is a 27-year-old mechanical engineer whose own story is a lesson in serendipity. He was born in Brazil and given up for adoption as a newborn. His adoptive parents arrived in Brazil intending to adopt another boy, but the baby had died and Ryan, then two weeks old, was next in line. He grew up on a 100-acre farm outside Estacada, Ore.
He knows nothing about his biological parents, but displayed an early aptitude for math, science, rockets and computers. At 14 he skipped high school and enrolled in community college, becoming the first in his adoptive family to attend college. By 19 he had a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and was launched on a series of entrepreneurial and research positions, one of which involved designing projects for the International Space Station.
Developing the AgDrone combines his keen interests in aeronautics and robotics with farming, which he describes as “an engineer’s playground.”
The company’s other principals are software engineer Ben Howard, 29, who left computer chip maker Intel to join HoneyComb, and John Faus, 30, who handles marketing and sales. Both are from Molalla, and have known each other since elementary school. Jenson, then still a shy and soft-spoken teenager, was Faus’ math tutor at community college. Faus quickly identified Jenson as a “genius” who was going to do big things, and years later introduced him to his friend Howard.
HoneyComb grew from late-night gab sessions, often after bowling in Molalla, in which Faus jokes he and Jenson discussed “taking over the world.” Late one night, as the discussion evolved, Faus called Howard to join them.
“When John called me that evening, I said, ‘All right, I’m in,’” Howard recalls. He and Faus were already close, and he knew Jenson as a “really sharp guy who got stuff done.”
Howard enjoyed his job at Intel, one of the world’s leading high-tech companies, but jumped at the chance to do “something big and something new.”
“It’s my chance to be Henry Ford,” he says. “We see it that big.”
Jenson calls agricultural drones “classic disruptive technology,” meaning they will change everything. Just as the tractor provided farmers mechanical leverage, drones will provide informational leverage, he says. Others in the field speak of an approaching “revolution,” or a “tidal wave of technology.”
“It sounds crazy and ‘Star Wars,’” Jenson says, “but it’s here now.”
Landing the technology
In the Canby field, Howard takes manual control, drops the AgDrone through the enveloping fog and cuts the motor. It glides silently to a halt, sliding across the grass on metal skids. Two sets of fathers and sons watch in admiration. Farmer Steve Koch and his son, Ryan, host the demonstration. They grow grass seed and vegetables, and count themselves among HoneyComb’s early supporters. Both nod in appreciation of the informational capability represented by drone technology.
“It’s another layer of data,” Steve Koch says.
Also watching are Mauricio Laniado and his son, also named Mauricio. The elder Laniado was a banker in Miami for 25 years before returning home to Ecuador and rejoining the family banana plantation business. He says bananas are susceptible to a fungus, which farmers must detect and treat early to prevent damage. His interest in precision agriculture led him to drones, and to HoneyComb’s work. He tries his hand at launching and manually flying the AgDrone, and listens carefully as Howard explains how its flight can be programmed.
Mango, pineapple and sugar cane growers in Ecuador might be interested as well, Laniado says.
“This could be a way to control the fungus,” he says.
International sales may be the AgDrone’s first outlet, because the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet approved drones for commercial use. The FAA is supposed to develop airspace rules by 2015, but in the meantime has approved six national test areas. Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii are combined as one of the test areas.
Some research is already underway. Drones were flown over test potato plots in Eastern Oregon this past year, and researchers at the University of California-Davis have test-sprayed vineyards and orchards with a small, unmanned helicopter.
A team from OSU built a drone, painted it to resemble a hawk and flew it over a vineyard to see if it would scare birds that peck wine grapes. A forum on drone technology’s application in agriculture attracted at least 100 growers, researchers and vendors last month in Yamhill County, the heart of Oregon’s wine industry.
“It’s a big game changer in agriculture,” says Jeff Lorton, the county’s economic development manager. “The Holy Grail of it is crop diagnostics.”
It is within that charged atmosphere that HoneyComb’s principals see themselves succeeding. The company is reaching out to investors, relying on self-funding and has a grant pending with the Oregon BEST Center — the acronym for Built Environment and Sustainable Technology — the state agency that provides funding for young businesses.
Jenson believes his company’s edge will be in processing the data.
“Flying and getting imagery is only the first step,” he says. “Taking the information and learning from it is the value-added part.
“We’ve got the people to do this,” he says. “We’re going to see this thing through.”