Wilbur-Ellis, one of the country’s prominent ag service and supply companies, has received FAA approval for commercial use of a drone manufactured in Oregon.
The company will fly the AgDrone, made by HoneyComb Corp. of Wilsonville, 20 miles south of Portland. The company, started by three young entrepreneurs from small Oregon towns, makes a battery-powered winged drone equipped with visual and spectral-imagery cameras that can map fields and spot crop problems.
The company was featured in a January 2014 article in the Capital Press.
Wilbur-Ellis spokeswoman Sandar Gharib said the company doesn’t have immediate plans for widespread drone use, but is testing the technology. In a prepared statement, technology Vice President Mike Wilbur said the company has an “overall mission to explore the role that emerging technologies can play in precision farming.”
Ben Howard, HoneyComb’s software engineer and one of the original three partners, said Wilbur-Ellis bought one drone and will use it first in South Dakota.
“It’s good validation to have a big company like Wilbur-Ellis pick it up,” Howard said. “To have their stamp of approval really helps.”
In the past year, HoneyComb has moved from start-up space at Portland State University to a manufacturing and office site in Wilsonville, and it how has 16 employees.
The drone costs $15,000, and the company provides one year of data processing for $6,000. The latest model has a Kevlar exo-skeleton. It comes with a carrying case and is intended to be tossed in the back of a pickup, taken to a field and launched. According to HoneyComb, its sensors feed into a cloud-based processing system and generate plant stress or other maps within minutes.
Howard said Wilbur-Ellis will use the AgDrone to scout fields and generate chemical prescription maps based on plant health. Applicators will be able to target only the sections of fields that need attention.
Using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to collect field data has been a top topic for the past couple years. Critics have raised questions about privacy, air traffic safety and security, in part fueled by the military use of drones to locate and destroy enemies. The FAA is still plowing through procedures for civilian use.
Approval by the FAA comes with restrictions. Operators can’t fly the drone at night and must keep it within visual range. It must stay below 400 feet altitude, can’t exceed 100 mph and can’t be flown within five miles of an airport.
The application was supported by the Small UAV Coalition and opposed by the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Agricultural Aviation Association.
Read the original article on Capital Press here.