The T30 has six rotors. The new model has four rotors and an extra 10 litres of product. However, the big difference is the new controller, which can automatically find the optimal altitude, speed and chemical flow. | Ron Lyseng photo
Crop duster system uses three autonomous drones at a time to spray 1,000 acres a day on broad acre prairie crops
FARGO, N.D. — Most experts have written off using drones for aerial application on broad acre prairie crops. A drone cannot compete with a 1,600 horsepower Air Tractor carrying 800 gallons.
A few manufacturers have obtained registrations for orchard-scale spray drones, but government approval for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with a heavy Air Tractor type payload of 10,000 pounds isn’t in the cards.
Now, one Minnesota company is trying a new approach by using a trio of smaller licensed and approved battery-powered drones, all managed by a single controller.
Maverick Drone Systems sells a single purpose T30 application drone, capable of carrying 30 litres of liquid. It can also apply granular products. Maverick chief executive officer Adam Shaw says the company sells a variety of ag drones for scouting and for multi-spectral imaging, but the T30 is the one farmers were drawn to at the Big Iron show held recently in Fargo. The drone is built by DJI in China.
Shaw often fields questions about how he plans to apply chemicals on broadacre crops. His reply?
“One drone can spray 40 acres per hour. We have case studies with farmers covering 1,000 acres per day while running three T30 drones,” he said, adding that there were no spray drones when he started Maverick in 2014. They didn’t see serious spray drones until 2017. The basic T30 without options lists for under $30,000.
“The T30 does have front and rear-view cameras feeding video to the operator, but unfortunately this is a single-purpose UAV. You can’t use it for scouting or mapping. We have quite a number of lower cost drones specifically for those uses. Before doing an application, you’d first do your multi-spectral analysis with the appropriate drone. You bring it back with the intelligence and load it on the T30 platform, which defines what and where the problems are.
“Once the analysis has identified spots with wild oats or fusarium or insects, the T30 brings itself to those precise targets. Or you may have wet spots where the weeds are taking over. You can target that one specific area. The controller will calculate the correct altitude, speed and flow rate to make the application. You can also do whole-field applications without skips or overlaps.”
Shaw says the obvious benefit of any aerial application, be it fix wing or helicopter or drone, is that tires stay out of the field, which reduces crop trampling and soil compaction, and it uses less energy and less chemical.
Ironically, people thought drones would reduce manpower requirements. Instead, drones have created a major legal requirement for trained certified pilots and observers. Your cousin from the city can’t just drive out on weekends to help run your drones, unless he or she is certified.
For American customers, Maverick provides the FAA 107 training for potential pilots, which is the minimum criteria needed to fly any UAV. It also helps potential pilots gain their FAA 137 licence, which is required to spray any sort of poison from an unmanned vehicle. There is no getting around the two pilot licensing requirements, explains Maverick spokesperson Erik Lundgren.
The tank on the current T30 drone will go up to 40 litres when the new series of applicators are delivered this month. A complete T40 operation comprises three drones, a controller and a raft of batteries. If conditions are right, that setup can cover 1,000 acres in a 10-hour day. | Ron Lyseng photo
The UAV has a maximum flight time of 20 minutes with a fully charged battery but Lundgren said with a quick charge the unit can be airborne again in about 10 minutes.
Lungren concedes that the benefit of reducing staff size with drones loses some of its shine when you run three drones from a single controller. FAA rules state you need two people, a licensed pilot and a spotter.
He says having an extra person makes sense in a three-drone operation. It keeps the crew busy topping up tanks and changing batteries.
“With a three-drone operation running smoothly, farmers are spraying 100 acres, even up to 120 acres, per hour. If you have 1,000 acres, a two-man crew can cover it all in 10 hours, working with the 30-litre drones.”
Lungren said the company plans to introduce a larger drone this month, with a liquid payload of 40 litres.
“The T30 has six arms and six blades. The T-40 has four blades, but the motors are more powerful. Price will be about $37,000. That varies with options like the granular tank and extra batteries.
“If you’re launching a multi-aircraft operation with three sprayers, you’ll want at least four extra batteries charged up for each drone. You want to keep them flying. A complete T40 setup with three drones, extra batteries and other options will cost $144,000 Canadian dollars. Compare that to the purchase price and operating costs of a new high clearance sprayer, and the drone starts to look pretty good.”
Source: Western Producer