UAV makers partner to expand market opportunity

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by Willie Vogt for Farm Industry News

PrecisionHawk makes major announcement with DJI; DuPont Pioneer

UAV companies are starting to make news. That’s key as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gets closer to its new final rules for operating these versatile eyes in the sky that could benefit your farm. And two makers of these flying image makers have announced they are joining forces – at least on the software level.

PrecisionHawk and DJI are coming together to provide what they’re calling an easy-to-use drown and data package for use by farmers. PrecisionHawk is the fixed- wing drone maker that has innovated the industry with its auto-flying airships. DJI is a leader in multi-prop hovering UAVs used by a wide range of industries.

The new partnership is about software. PrecisionHawk has developed control software for two DJI drone models – the Matrice M100 and M600 – to operate the machines and manage the imagery captured. “Our mission as a company is to be a leading data analytics platform for aerial information collection in agriculture,” says Patrick Lohman, vice president, partnerships, PrecisionHawk. “That’s what spurred this partnership to create an enterprise hardware solution.”

Adds Adam Lisberg, director, communications, DJI: “This is a huge step forward for those with a commercial interest.” He explains that the UAV industry has been filled with leading-edge users who did a lot of “hack and rehack” to fly, but with this new partnership anyone will be able to get a UAV up and flying to capture information.

The two firms have entered into an exclusive partnership for the ag market to link DJI’s commercial-grade drone hardware to PrecisionHawk’s drone software platform – DataMapper. Called the “Smarter Farming” package will include the DJI Matrice drone (M100 or M600) the new DataMapper Inflight app for data collection and a one year subscription to DataMapper for data management analysis.

Adds Lohman: “By combining our strengths – DJI’s world-renowned hardware and PrecisionHawk’s seamless software tools that bridge the gap from flight to geospatial data analysis – we are effectively eliminating any major barriers to entry and allowing the industry to begin adopting this technology in their everyday workflows on a broader scale.”

Branching out

PrecisionHawk hasn’t been known for playing in the “pro-sumer” end of the drone market. Lohman explains that his company’s planes are not cheap but have been popular with ag clients (more on that below). “We wanted to bring the great data analytics that serve ag and offer them to the farmer level,” he says. “We knew we would eventually get to working with lower cost hardware to [penetrate] the market.”

That choice was DJI maker of the popular Phantom drone, but the Matrice is a higher payload design. Lisberg explains that the M100 and M600 (the M600 is shown above) can carry more weight and operate for a longer period of time. “There’s a big difference between a 20 minute operating time and a 40 minute operating time,” he notes.

These drone models are heavy-duty workhorses. The M600 can carry up to 13 pounds. “It can carry a pro cinema or video camera and has been used in major Hollywood films for aerial shots. We call it a heavy lifter,” Lisberg says. He adds that DJI has even developed its own spraying platform – the Agris system (but PrecisionHawk is not working with that system yet).

DJI had created a software developer’s kit for the Matrice series, which PrecisionHawk started working with. As part of the partnership announcement, PrecisionHawk has launched an app that allows you to control a Matrice machine – set a flight plan and capture information into its software DataMapper.

Lohman explains that a software developer’s kit provides for the “low-level stuff” to make sure the machine stays in balance and stays in the air. “And then we wrote an app that tells the drones what to do. Flick a button and it takes off, tell it all the waypoints – we handle the geometry calculations – and it takes a path to take the pictures and comes back and lands where you tell it to land.”

Operation becomes simpler, but Lohman adds that PrecisionHawk’s DataMapper software is where farmers get more value. The software – which recently got a significant financial boost from a round of financing that included DuPont Pioneer – takes all the images taken by a drone and not only stitches them automatically but provides analytics for the user.

“We’ve taken the human out of the loop for gathering the information,” Lohman says. “We’re working to make things more automated.” With the new DataMapper Inflight app, a user can create a flight plan and autonomously collect geospatial data. The images are viewable in DataMapper where they are processed into 2D and 3D maps and ready for further analysis. Users also have access to DataMapper’s library of analysis algorithms that provide details information around the major decisions a farmer makes during the season.

Advancing analytics

Lohman adds that PrecisionHawk has a staff of remote sensing data scientists that build the software algorithms on which the software works. DataMapper is a sophisticated tool; in fact it’s so sophisticated that DuPont Pioneer has used the tool for its phenotype work in plant breeding. The system can measure plant counts, plant height, and PrecisionHawk is working with more partners to enhance value further.

From measuring nitrogen use to other plant health attributes, DataMapper is a tool that will work with the DJI and PrecisionHawk airships. Lohman also explains that PrecisionHawk is working with university researchers, and research, to turn information discovered in the field into useful analytics for farmers.

“A researcher might solve a specific problem in their work and write a paper on it, but it won’t get used in the commercial world,” Lohman explains. “We turn that research – which might be a match equation – into software and license that intellectual property from the researcher.” There’s a lot of work sitting on shelves at university libraries that could enhance analytic software to make the information gathered by a drone more useful.

DuPont Pioneer recently announced it had joined a round of funding for PrecisionHawk, in essence putting its own money where its research is to support the work on DataMapper. “Pioneer was actually one of our first clients,” Lohman recalls. “We do a lot of interesting work with them. And they’re one of the few companies that also have remote sensing scientist and specialists working on analysis.”

DuPont Pioneer on board

“We’re excited to pair publicly with PrecisionHawk,” says Neil Hausmann, senior research manager with field technology innovation and operation, DuPont Pioneer. He explains that early work with PrecisionHawk was encouraging for Pioneer as it worked to improve analytics and its work in product development.

Hausmann explains that company leaders saw the opportunity to fund some of PrecisionHawk’s work. That funding came in the form of Series C financing (a finance round often associated with the phase where a young company is ready to scale up its operations). DuPont Pioneer joined an investor group that included Intel Capital, Verizon Ventures, Yamaha Motor, USAA, NTT Docomo, Millennium Technology Value Partners and the Innovate Indiana Fund.

Hausmann explains that a major part of the Pioneer’s collaboration with PrecisionHawk is to turn data into knowledge. “You take 1,000 pictures of a 20-acre field and stich those together and figure out by pixels what’s going on in the plot and how well that plot is germinating,” he says.

With DataMapper Hausman explains it’s possible to measure a crop’s tolerance to leaf disease, and Pioneer is working with PrecisionHawk to develop other capabilities. They’ve worked in both soybeans and corn.

“You can take stand counts from the air,” Hausman explains. “If you have a wet weekend that information is important to the grower to know what parts of the field are coming up, and what the impact may be on eventual yield.”

The benefits of a UAV – like gauging yield in a wet field after heavy rain – continue to grow. As analytic software gets better the information becomes more valuable too. “If we’re developing a product that has resistance to Northern Leaf Blight, we can take measurements during product development to gauge the performance of those products,” Hausmann explains.

He explains that in product development, using a precision UAV with the right software you can image a field and make measurements along every step of a product’s development – even as product development extends to 1,000s of fields. “We can make measurements the first year, and do the same in subsequent years with the same repeatability across more fields. We end up not only with a product to sell in the market but we integrate environment, response and product development with that knowledge,” Hausman says, adding that this tech will offer precision phenotyping for the future.

The video below promotes the new partnership offering a look at the data collection capability of the DHI with DataMapper technology.