The Birthplace of Precision-Ag UAVs

AgEagle has put a small Kansas town on the map by providing the business model for linking UAVs with precision agriculture. The company offers the entire UAS industry a prime business case model on how to profit during times of limbo.
By Luke Geiver | January 15, 2015

Neodesha, Kansas, may someday be considered the birthplace of the modern precision agriculture-based unmanned aircraft vehicle business. It’s in that small ag-based town where Bret Chilcott and Tom Nichols have created the largest UAV manufacturing business in North America that is solely focused on the practice of monitoring crop health, improving yields and providing the data and information necessary to make precision agricultural philosophies a reality. From their homebase in Neodesha, Chilcott and Nichols have built UAVs for clients around the world, including Sweden, Brazil, Canada and the U.S. When the duo is not working to tweak their fixed-wing designs and cloud-based data gathering systems, they are on the road at shows in cities of all sizes ranging from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Los Angeles. To Nichols, time on the road helps the team to clarify the mysteries of UAVs prospective clients have yet to understand.

Our team spoke with Nichols over the course of two months to uncover the truths about the state of UAVs in precision ag. We caught up with Nichols multiple times, once on his way to a small farmer gathering a short drive away from Neodesha where he was asked to discuss UAVs, and again, a month later, 30 minutes before he was about to take the stage at a Nebraska farm show. We saw Chilcott during an L.A. drone expo, but only garnered a quick hello due to the constant swarm of interested parties asking Chilcott to explain AgEagle. For anyone interested in gaining a true understanding of the role unmanned aircraft systems can or will play in the precision ag industry, it is apparent that at this time, the story is only about the future. Fortunately for our team, the farmers near Neodesha and the attendees of the Lincoln show and the L.A. event, the AgEagle team has already experienced the future.

Early Days
Before Chilcott, founded AgEagle, he was involved in building model aircrafts, selling Cesna airplanes, working in boat manufacturing and the world of composite material. He was once the owner of a composite materials firm. After learning about Kansas State University’s experimental work to develop a remote control flight platform capable of holding cameras, roughly four years ago, Chilcott put his aircraft and composite building skills to use. He designed a fixed-wing platform that KSU said should be offered to the commercial marketplace. At the same time, Nichols had joined Chilcott as a business development executive to help grow Chilcott’s composite material business. “KSU said we should sell our product to farmers and ranchers,” Nichols says, but before they were willing to invest time and effort the duo visited a Kansas precision ag event to speak about how the UAV they had built may be used in farming.

“There were all these guys in farm attire, overalls made for the middle of winter,” Nichols says. “But, they all pulled out iPads and laptops. They were very smart in talking about their operations.”

After giving their precision-ag-UAV pitch, Chilcott and Nichols were swamped. “They could see the value of it [the AgEagle] in their sky,” Nichols says. “If we had the ability to sell 10 at that show we could have. That was two-and-a-half years ago.”

Following the show, the team of two returned to the shop and decided they needed to commit to UAVs. “We took the list of all the customers that we supplied carbon fiber parts to and told them we were changing our business and that we were now AgEagle and that was all we were going to do,” Nichols says.

Since January 2014, the Kansas-based team has manufactured and sold more than 130 units and established roughly 23 dealerships for its AgEagle UAV.

How AgEagle Succeeds
The AgEagle product is a fixed-wing UAV equipped with a foot-operated launcher. Because the team is focused of precision ag only, the entire design of the system is geared towards easy, one-man operation. Along with the UAV, the team has developed AgEagle Rapid, a data gathering system used to assemble information from sensors and stitched images. The system begins tabulating its own scan patterns soon after ascension, tweaking its flight pattern for wind and other factors while optimizing lens focus and camera settings if it is not operated manually.

Photos taken during flight are geo-referenced and uploaded to Rapid’s cloud-based automated data transfer network within 15 to 20 minutes thanks to DroneDeploy, a UAV-software and technology firm that offers a system called CoPilot. The system helps connect unmanned vehicles to an Internet feed, eliminating the need for ground-based operational control. The data or image set can be viewed on a smartphone or tablet and can be implemented into the client’s desired farm management software of choice capable of creating field remedy prescriptions for trouble areas highlighted in the images.

Chilcott and Nichols have worked with multiple farm management software providers, payload designers and others to learn which offerings will work best with the AgEagle, but according to Nichols, the system is capable of handling nearly any payload offering.

The business model to date for the AgEagle team has been a success. The company focuses on precision agriculture firms, agronomists and even individual farmers. When the team is on the road educating and selling, the conversations had can be described in one of four ways, Nichols says. There are some worried about UAVs and joke that if one were to fly over their respective property, they may take action to remove the UAV from the sky. Others have seen or heard about UAVs in farming publications. “Those people want to know how it will benefit them. By the time I explain the benefits they understand,” he says.

Then, there are precision ag professionals already applying high-level farming techniques. “They know about UAVs, but they want to know how to implement them with their farm-based prescription software.” There are also farm support service providers and co-ops. They want to know about how to add them to their suite of services and how to start up a dealership. “The novelty of the UAV has not worn off, but the knowledge base has expanded so that there is less mystery surrounding UAVs,” Nichols says.

Although Nichols tone has always been best described as energetic and excited, he does have a sliver of frustration behind his voice with the current state of U.S. regulations against UAVs.

Profiting In Limbo
Following Transport Canada’s passage of small UAV rules, AgEagle’s calls from Canada have exploded, Nichols says. “Everyone wants to order one or set-up a dealership,” he says with that excitement, but the same cannot be said of the company’s U.S. operations. “The only reason why the industry hasn’t exploded is because the co-ops, the agronomists and all the people that want to fly for hire are concerned about the FAA or a competitor might step-in and create legal hassles for them,” he says with frustration. “So, they wait.”

Although AgEagle is mainly serving clients in Brazil, Sweden, Canada and other non-U.S. markets, it has still found success at home. According to Nichols, there are people willing to pull the trigger on buying the AgEagle today even if they know they are going to lose another growing season due to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s delay of sUAV rules. “They want to use their time now as a learning experience so that when they can use them they will now how,” he says. It’s that reality that has the entire team excited at a time of industry stagnancy. Interested parties, the agronomists, co-ops and farm support teams are still investing in ag-based UAVs even though regulations currently prohibit their use.

“I think our story can be about what other startup UAV companies can look like,” Nichols says. The company, less than five years old, has already quadrupled its employee base in Neodesha and is becoming a well-recognized brand in the UAV sector. Until the FAA issues its regulations, Nichols believes other firms can maintain success by continuing to travel, get in front of potential users and test products possible. The AgEagle team has already moved past its UAV business aspirations, Nichols adds, and is already working on new editions of its UAV, tweaking the manufacturing model and developing more and more distribution models beneficial to all parties. Until the U.S. explodes the way Canada has, Nichols and Chilcott will continue to travel and look for potential payload offerings or software offerings that can keep their product flying high. He ended our talk earlier this year from the shop in Kansas with that message. “I’m off to a small-town farmers meeting,” he said “Usually people want to learn more and buy our products.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Editor, UAS Magazine
[email protected]