CASSELTON, NORTH DAKOTA — A Grand Forks, North Dakota, company has launched a study to learn how their heavy-lift drones can seed cover crops.
The initial study is six months to a year and recently took flight at North Dakota State University’s Agronomy Seed Farm in Casselton, North Dakota. About 75 people attending a summer field days at the research farm on July 19, 2021, got to see the drone and hear their plans.
The drone maker is Mobile Recon Systems LLC, originally from Lexington, Kentucky. A year ago the company moved to Grand Forks and is developing heavy-lifting drones to be used for a variety of purposes, including agricultural applications. Initially, they are fitting the machines to spread 20 pounds of seed, but they have larger drones that theoretically could carry 200 pounds, although they are still developing hopper configurations.
NDSU is collaborating with the company in a study funded by a $48,000 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission. In the first public demonstration, at the field day, Mobile Recon sent the MR-10 aloft with about 5 pounds of barley seed. The machine was up a few minutes in light winds, and spread some of the seed before coming came back to earth.
Air to earth
Tom Nickell is chief executive officer of the company, which started in 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky. It started doing business in North Dakota May 9, 2019, and by May 1, 2020, moved its headquarters and manufacturing to 1213 Rylan Road in Grand Forks, in a building owned by Brown Corporations.
John Nowatzki recently retired as Extension Service ag machine specialist in North Dakota State University’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department. He continues as a part-time employee, helping to complete some projects he started, including this one.
Nowatzki sees the research as key, and the study should answer some questions.
“If he says he can plant this at 5 pounds per acre, is it doing that?” Nowatzki said.
Will the seed be spread evenly?
Will it grow without tilling it in?
“If seed is put on as a cover crop for soybeans or corn in the summer, what is the likelihood — if it doesn’t rain for a month — is it going to germinate?” Nowatzki said.
Nowatzki thinks tests might show that the likeliest fit for the seeding drones will be small areas — perhaps 1- to 3-acre spots that are saline where a special seed is desired, that may be different than what is elsewhere on the field.
“Or, more likely, wetlands where you can’t drive a tractor and you want to be able to plant. In a dry year, like this, if you (conventionally) plant cover crops and there’s no rain, it’s a waste of time,” he said. “So you could monitor the weather forecast and plant (via drone) a few hours or a day before a rain,” he said.
The drones all are “octocopters.” They run with eight motors and eight propellers. The motors are mounted over each other in four pairs on an “X-frame.” The MR-10 propellers are 28- and 30-inch lengths. “The full footprint" is about 81 inches from prop tip to prop tip, Nickell said.
“With this payload, it will fly 15 minutes or so,” Nickell said, of the MR-10.
Mobile Recon’s largest drone — “Dauntless” — can carry and spread a whole seed bag, which often weighs 70 to 75 pounds, he said.
“That one will be able to carry up to 100 pounds of seed, so even more than a seed bag," he explained. "With that one we’d actually have multiple hoppers on it, so you could have multiple seed mixes — put sensors on the aircraft to determine what seed should go where at what times, and be able to control that all, communicating with the aircraft from the ground. Much more efficient that way.”
Nickell and others see many possibilities for drone use in agriculture.
They could allow operators to seed into tight spots, unfriendly terrain or close to trees, Nickell said. They could be fitted with sprayers for pesticide applications, thermal cameras to check crop condition or soil conditions. (Similarly drones should work in non-ag applications, such as inspecting wind turbines, monitoring distribution lines or even rail lines.)
The company will work to fit drones with equipment to collect samples from crops to check for the presence of aphids or other bugs. Drones can be programmed with “way points” allowing them to collect samples along a particular route.
Mobile Recon gets its seed spreader mechanisms through a Missouri company called Aerial Spreader LLC, a company incorporated Sept. 8, 2020, at Bridgeton, Missouri, with offices in Creve Coeur, Missouri — both suburbs of St. Louis. Nickell, whose career has been in business development for start-up businesses, worked in St. Louis from 2013 until he moved to Grand Forks in 2020. He became acquainted with Aerial Spreader officials through a start-up networking program.
Aerial Spreader had been developing a prototype for spreading grassland seed for reclamation and cover crops, and in the past three years have been doing some work for farmers, on a custom basis, Nickell said. Aerial Spreader equipment had been working primarily with DJI, a Chinese drone company based in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, that has had about 70% of the U.S. and world market.
“A key for (Aerial Spreader) is that the DJI drones can only carry about 8 pounds or so of seed. And the (aerial seeding) business model really works well if you start getting up — I don’t know — maybe a whole seed bag of 50 to 70 pounds,” Nickell said.
Mobile Recon wants its drones to be able to cover more of a field and even go multiple fields or farms, before landing.
“The margins go up that way. Our strategy is really for heavier payloads,” he said.
Mobile Recon currently uses Tattu brand batteries. That's one of two brands marketed by Shenzhen Grepow Battery Co. Ltd., also from Shenzhen, China, with U.S. distribution out of Livermore, California. Dauntless takes four of the 30,000 milleiampere-hour batteries to fly about 15 minutes. The company wants to be able to fly the machine up to four hours, with top speeds of 50 mph. The batteries weigh about four pounds each.
“Much of the use of drones has been with cameras and videography,” Nickell said. “They designed ways to get those into the air.”
Initially the Dowells self-funded the company. Then they received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a drone to carry LIDAR for archeological surveying.
The company looked at other states with “UAS ecosystems” to relocate to. They consider Oklahoma and New York State.
“We were contacted by some people in Grand Forks with the Economic Development Corp., and they introduced us to what North Dakota had to offer,” Mike said.
The company is working with about $1.7 million in state-related funds.
In November 2019 Mobile Recon was approved for a loan package of $1.2 million. It included three equal parts — Jobs Development Authority in Grand Forks, the North Dakota Development Fund, and a private commercial loan from Choice Bank with participation from the Bank of North. In early 2020, they got another $500,000 from a so-called LIFT Fund, which stands for the Innovation Technology Loan Fund in the Department of Commerce.
The company is using the money to purchase equipment and provide enough working capital to establish its manufacturing base. Some of the loans require them to create 13 jobs in its first two years of operation. They started hiring in May 2020, and have 10 so far, with plans to get to 35 employees in the next two years. They just just started selling the MR-10 models.
Nowatzki said one of the obstacles for expanding commercial drone expansion continues to be Federal Aviation Administration safety standards. He thinks that will improve, as drones prove their safety.
NDSU cooperated with research involving large drones flying for aerial imaging.
“That works very well. We had no (safety) issues at all. But the FAA is still not willing to let us fly drones over 55 pounds. When that happens we’ll be able to move forward,” he said.
Nowatzki said it is "easier to think in the past or present, and harder to think in the future.”
He goes out on a limb and predicts that — if and when the FAA allows it — large drones could compete with manned aircraft for aerial applications, whether cover crop seed, herbicides or insecticides.
“We’ll see that happen too — I think,” Nowatzki said.
He notes that a conventional aerial application plane with a human pilot is about $500,000. A drone is $10,000, he said.