It will be a cold day in Hell when Joshua Brown calls the DJI Phantom quadcopter a “drone.”
Brown is founder and CEO of AgScan, a Broomall, Pennsylvania-based company that uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support agriculture and other industries. Brown’s company uses purpose-built flying robots with advanced sensors that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Though most people would call the Phantom, a remote-controlled quadcopter with a camera, a drone, Brown, a Navy veteran, would say it’s a toy. In Brown’s world, a drone is a remote-controlled aircraft used for military target practice, and a UAV is a sophisticated vehicle capable of revolutionizing agriculture, search-and-rescue work, and many other industries.
“There are a lot of things that an unmanned aircraft can do in the hands of a skilled person,” he said. “It’s all about the integration of technology and ingenuity. If you put those two things together in the right sequence, you can do some amazing things.”
Brown is far from alone in getting excited about UAVs. Private businesses are now investigating the commercial possibilities of drones for everything from delivering packages to searching for disaster victims to helping farmers monitor their crops. Somewhat confusingly, a whole slew of devices, everything from an RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance aircraft the size of a Boeing 757 airliner to a frisbee-sized Parrot quadcopter controlled by an iPhone are popularly referred to as “drones.”
Whatever you call them, New Jersey is at the forefront of the commercialization of drones. Rutgers University is one of half a dozen parties that are participating in a large-scale test of UAV technology along with the FAA to help determine the rules that unpiloted vehicles will have to follow in the future as they share the skies with manned aircraft. Rutgers and Virginia Tech are testing drones at Stockton College’s Aviation Research and Technology Park in South Jersey. The New Jersey Tech Council is holding a special program on drones on Thursday, September 17 (see sidebar, page 32.)
Commercial companies involved in the testing include AgScan, Unmanned Sensing Systems in Mount Laurel, and Sunhillo Corp. in West Berlin.
Ryck Suydam, president of the state Farm Bureau and owner of Suydam Farms on Route 27 in Somerset, says farmers have a lot of uses for UAV services. Some farmers, he said, are even learning to fly drones themselves. One of the more promising applications is integrated pest management — combatting insects, weeds, fungus, disease, drought, and anything else that could threaten a crop.
“That’s done now by a handful of individuals who drive from farm to farm and walk the field to identify pests,” he said. “It takes a lot of time, and, well, time is money. What a drone can do is it can cover a lot more ground, and someone doesn’t have to walk in the field and step on anything.”
High-quality images can also tell farmers exactly which parts of their fields are under attack from a pest, allowing them to apply solutions more precisely than ever before. “Pesticides and herbicides are expensive,” Suydham says. “You don’t want to burn them on 80 acres when you only have a 20-acre problem.”
Commercial UAV technology is coming at a time when small consumer drones carrying cameras are becoming incredibly popular. This poses a problem for people who want to put UAVs to serious use because a large number of the people operating drones are, to put it delicately, morons.
Drones have made headlines in the worst way. In early September, a drone disrupted the U.S. Open tennis tournament, flying over Flavia Pennetta and Monica Niculescu’s match and crashing into an empty part of the stands. Aerial firefighting against wildfires in Utah was temporarily suspended in August after pilots noticed an unauthorized drone in the area. In June singer Enrique Iglesias was injured when he grabbed a drone that was buzzing near his head during a concert.
“They are the bane of my existence, frankly,” says Brown of hobby drones. “I’ve had people threaten to shoot at us because of bad things that some hobbyist has done. I have to sit people down and calmly explain to them that we are not hobby folks. Our staff are FAA-rated pilots. Some of my people fly planes after work.”
Suydam says the public need not worry about farmers misusing drones, and welcomes the government stepping in to provide some regulations. “People could be convinced that we’re snooping if we use drones,” Suydam says. “But we’ve got soybeans to worry about. We’re not going to go snooping in people’s windows. The impact to the public will be next to nothing.”
Brown says AgScan is one of the companies working with the FAA to integrate UAVs into airspace where manned aircraft are flying around. He says it can be dangerous for untrained hobby operators to fly without knowing what aircraft might be overhead. “Listen, you don’t understand what you’re sticking your finger up into,” he said. “Just try to google aeronautical charts and look at the airspace over where you live. If you can’t find where you live, that tells you something. Airspace is very, very busy. The Northeast Corridor is one of the busiest airspaces on the planet.”
Currently hobby drones are allowed to fly at altitudes less than 400 feet, well below air routes. However, Brown says, that doesn’t guarantee safety. “I’ve been on medevac helicopters before where the pilot can’t fly over 500 feet or they will kill the patient on board. I tell people to think about it, have you seen a helicopter fly really low before?”
Brown says he files a flight plan for his UAVs just as he would if he were making an airplane flight. “We’re really careful in following the rules. You need to file the right paperwork because otherwise you’d never know what’s going on. Trained aviators understand the importance of safety. That’s the problem with the UAV industry right now. There are a lot of people who have never had their tail in a cockpit of an aircraft.”
Suydam Farms on Route 27 in Somerset is a 300-acre family-owned farm founded 300 years ago, devoted mostly to hay production. “There are a lot of horses in New Jersey, and they’ve all got to eat,” Suydam says. He also grows rye and vegetables and has a few dozen pigs and sheep and some chickens.
Even such small farms as Suydam’s have used aviation services since the beginning of air travel, with cropdusting being one of the first commercial uses of airplanes.
Suydam hopes to be at the forefront of using drone technology, too. Sydam says he was working with AgScan to run a technology demonstration at his farm this summer, but that it had to be called off due to a technical glitch — one indication of the new nature of the technology. The demonstration was meant to see how drones could operate on fields that are “blessed” with the presence of high tension power lines, as Suydam’s are. Drones must prove they can operate around obstacles such as power lines that are often found on farms.
“I think it would be a good test of the technology,” he said.
Brown said AgScan has been hired by several farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to do various kinds of jobs.
“Right now we’re doing aerial photography,” he said. “What we’ve found is that if you take a proper type of camera, you can help people get a better overall perspective of an area, which allows them to have greater flexibility.”
Aerial photography is nothing new, but drones have a significant advantage over airplanes when it comes to taking pictures of land for agriculture, site planning, or other applications. A drone can be programmed to fly a predictable route at low altitude, and fly it several times on different days for a much closer view than a single airplane flyover. This can allow farmers to monitor the health of crops over time, and if there is a problem, see exactly where it is and how it is progressing.
AgScan uses several models of UAV, including a $40,000 system made by Dragonfly Innovations. It is equipped with high-tech multi-spectrum cameras and is capable of flying routes programmed by GPS.
Brown says his drones can get detail that manned airplane photography cannot capture. “High altitude imagery is not very precise,” he said. “When we fly, we can be descriptive, and say something is in ‘Row 3 in the North Field,’ where the best position they could get from aerial photography is ‘North Field.’”
Drones can also get below cloud cover that would obscure the view from high-flying planes, and drone images can be used to create a 3-D model of a landscape.
UAVs are being put to uses that no one imagined for them a few years ago. Several weeks ago, Brown got a call from a livestock farmer who wanted some aerial photography done. The farmer knew one of his cows was in heat, but he couldn’t tell which one because a bull wouldn’t let him cross over the fence to check.
“We did research situations where people have used these types of systems to actually fly over an area of cattle and be able to zoom in and see which heifer was in heat, or which one was injured rather than having to have someone jump over the fence and gather that information,” Brown says. “That’s really where the dynamic flexibility of having a robot comes in.”
The uses of drones have been expanded by research at Rutgers and other universities. Brown says his company has benefitted from a research paper by Rutgers professor Peter Oudemans, a plant pathologist at the university’s blueberry and cranberry research station in Chatsworth. Oudemans described how thermal imaging of cranberry crops could be used to measure heat stress in plants and optimize irrigation. “I came across this paper in grad school and I was fascinated,” Brown says.
Bob Goodman, dean for agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers, says the university is studying several other applications for UAVs in addition to Oudemans’ project.
At the Center for Vector Biology, Randy Gaugler studies how drones can be used to fight another buzzing pest — mosquitoes. Gaugler has been working with mosquito control officials in Bergen County, building a series of ever larger hexicopter and octocopter UAVs and equipping them with monitors for the detection of mosquitoes and spray devices to kill them.
Current mosquito control techniques resemble WWII carpet bombing — helicopters and fixed wing aircraft drop biological insecticide over large areas where mosquitoes are detected, and workers pour insecticide into stormwater drains and ponds. Using a UAV would be more like taking them out with precision weapons.
“Drones are so much more agile and so much less expensive than helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft,” Goodman says. Drones could go into marshes and other areas that are hard to get to by foot and target small pools of water, discarded tires, and other mosquito hotspots. “You could go searching out those individual naturally occurring small ponds and puddles and areas where there’s still water that you would otherwise have to get on your galoshes and beat around the bushes.”
Goodman says another possible use for drones is studying gypsy moth infestations in forested areas. Currently fixed-wing aircraft are used to look for large-scale damage to forests by the highly destructive invasive species. However, drones could fly much closer to the tree canopy and get a more precise view of where the moths were located.
If commercial UAV operations turn out to be big business, people like Brown hope to be in on the ground floor. Brown, 32, grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where his mother was a schoolteacher. He studied at St. John’s in New York and transferred to play football at Rutgers, leaving college early to become a firefighter. He finished his bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s degree at American Military University while he was in the Navy.
Brown also learned about drones while serving in the military. He says that while engaged in his grad school studies, he ran into a professor, an expert in UAVs, who told him he was smart and should try “something other than letting people shoot at you for a living.”
Brown was stationed for a time at a base in Florida with a unit that specialized in rescuing downed fighters from the water. There he became familiar with Navy drone operations. “I got to see the basics of what was there at the time. Just the different things that they were capable of,” Brown says.
When Brown was discharged from the Navy because of injuries, he ran into his cousin, Bruce Redding, who runs his own tech company called TransDermal Specialities in Broomall, Pennsylvania. Redding encouraged Brown to found his own company.
Brown says his primary motivation for founding AgScan is to help people. “I grew up in the Jesuit culture of being a man for others,” he says. “I looked at it that I was going to do something that was positive and could make an actual difference.” Brown says his injury had left him unable to work in law enforcement or the military — two occupations that had previously appealed to him — so he was left to find another way of making a positive change.
AgScan currently employs seven people, mostly military veterans. Brown says the long term outlook for the industry is enormous. “Honestly, this is a huge market, and it has potential. It’s going to take a little while longer for things to settle down,” he said. “Once federal regulations become more accepted then it will be easier.”
Brown sees his company moving beyond agriculture, as new industries find new uses for drones, including inspecting bridges, pipes, and power lines. “As you start using it, you start noticing more and more things to do. Our ability to work in infrastructure management was a pure accident,” he said.
One day Brown had the drone flying over a farm, when an employee noticed that the thermal camera was showing a “hot spot” on a nearby bridge. Brown realized the drones could be used to fly close to installations to check for damage. In talking to pilots, Brown learned that helicopters often perform the dangerous work of power line inspections.
“People die every year doing power line inspections. Power companies pay helicopter pilots to literally hover above power grids and examine them. It’s a very dangerous thing, and people die every year from crashes.” Brown says that lives could be saved if UAVs took over this job.
“We’re constantly finding things we are able to do,” he said. “We’re looking at expanding the company. There’s always going to be somebody who needs something.”
AgScan Inc., 581 Abbott Drive Broomall, PA. 484-885-6976. www.ag-scan.com.
Suydam Farms, 1803 Route 27 Somerset. 731-846-7139. www.suydamfarms.net