Drone maker targets agriculture market

Imagine a crop-dusting drone plane. Better yet, picture a drone helicopter circling cropland to alert a farmer to the onset of pests ravaging cropland.

The farmer then could take swift action, eradicating the nuisance before it did more damage.

That’s what employees of Scion UAS envision. The Loveland unmanned aircraft systems maker is perfecting plans for commercialization of drones for use in industries such as agriculture.

Scion UAS, founded last year, recently hired a business development manager who has contacts in civilian and military unmanned aircraft systems markets. The company hopes to parlay his Rolodex to gain a foothold in the agricultural market.

Jim Sampson, Scion UAS founding CEO, believes farmers will adopt unmanned aircraft earlier than in other industries.

“It’s a huge industry, for one,” Sampson said. “It covers a huge amount of real estate.”

He explained that drone aircraft can come equipped with a camera that can use imaging to map crop characteristics. That would help farmers determine things like whether they need to apply additional fertilizer.

The company has a large potential market in Weld County, which boasts more than 3,000 farms.

Other uses of unmanned aircraft could include searching ships for bombs before they reach ports, said Phillip Jones, a co-founder of Scion UAS who develops software for unmanned aircraft electronics. Perhaps drones even will deliver prescriptions to patients someday.

“Our primary business goal is targeting the commercial market,” Jones said. “We think we’ll be very well positioned for when it does become more generally legal in the United States.”

Jones means that all of this will move forward in earnest only after the federal government develops new rules for unmanned aircraft, whose wingspans can range from that of a Boeing 737 to a radio-controlled airplane.

Drone aircraft already have been used in war, law enforcement, search and rescue, border patrol and disaster relief.

Seeking to incorporate additional drones into U.S. airspace, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration as part of the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to create appropriate regulations. The agency is supposed to publish the rules on unmanned aircraft by 2014 and integrate them into U.S. airspace by the following year.

The FAA has made “some progress” on the new regulations, but “significant work” remains for the agency to meet its deadlines, according to a September report from the Government Accountability Office.

Because of privacy concerns, Sampson believes the FAA will need more time.

The U.S. military, of course, has used drones for airstrikes abroad, while countries like Brazil increasingly have turned to unmanned aircraft for domestic use, such as taking on drug traffickers. In parts of Asia, small drone helicopters monitor rice paddy fields.

“The rest of the world is a little more liberal when it comes to that,” Sampson said. “Certain countries are embracing the technology.”

Hopes are that the United States will follow suit.

Scion UAS last October announced it received a $3 million contract from the Naval Research Laboratory for unmanned helicopters. As part of that deal, it developed the SA-400 Jackal, a helicopter that it describes as an “optionally-piloted vehicle.”

It also has developed four sizes of helicopters, the smallest of which could fit in the back of a police cruiser. It plans to deliver its first helicopter later this year.

As for an agricultural drone, Sampson imagines that a farmer could store one on a trailer in his barn and tow it out to a field with his truck.

The drone would take off from the trailer, map a 1,000-acre field in short order and then return to land on the trailer.

Steve Lynn covers technology for the Northern Colorado Business Report. He can be reached at 970-232-3147, slynn@ncbr.com or twitter.com/SteveLynnNCBR.

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