Rantizo drone filled with cover crop seed

A Rantizo drone filled with cover crop seed sits in a muddy field. When field access is an issue, UAVs’ ability to seed or spray specific spots or whole fields could benefit farmers.

As farmers encounter diseases and pests in August, a new method of dealing with these issues has opened up — drones.

Iowa City-based Rantizo became Iowa’s first authorized drone aerial applicator this summer, and business has been busy in the past month and a half.

“We were immediately busy,” CEO Michael Ott said. “There was so much precipitation problems and field access was a huge issue — just the lack of ability to get out there. We have the ability to be out there five, six days a week. If it rains at noon, we can fly at 1 p.m.”

The service, which is now permitted to operate in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska, uses drones to spray on seed, fungicide, insecticide and other products and is especially effective in situations where producers don’t need to spray the entire field.

“We can get into these small areas of fields profitably,” Ott said. “Showing people this will start to change some behaviors.”

He said they expect to be competitive with ground application spray rates next year, and in two to three years plan to be competitive with the amount of acres they can cover against a ground application.

Ott said they can cover 100 acres per day with a drone, and it would take 60-120 refills of the product throughout the day to cover that ground. He said much of the time and area covered depends on the rate at which you are spraying.

A drone can cover roughly 13 acres an hour, he said.

Once the technology was there, one of the tougher issues the company had to work through was approval from the Federal Aviation Association and state. The eight-month process left Ott wanting to just get back to basics.

“The technology was the easy part compared to the regulatory issues,” he joked.

For example, some regulations had been made without drones in mind. Ott said early on in the process, drones were qualified as crop dusters, which meant they required seatbelts.

“We’d get a little toy seatbelt and strap it on,” Ott said. “It can carry 25 pounds, and couldn’t possibly carry a person, but you had to have a seatbelt.”

Gretchen Paluch, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Pesticide Bureau Chief, said a category 11 license is required for both the applicator and company, which also includes compliance with Iowa Department of Transportation and FAA requirements.

Some restrictions kick in when drones starts weighing more than 55 pounds while carrying their load. If the drone is below 55 pounds, almost anybody can be trained to fly it. However, if the drone weighs more than 55 pounds, a pilot’s license is required.

Ott said his company designs its drones to weigh under that mark to make it easier for farmers to find an operator.

“There are people that you can pay $15-$20 an hour around, but there aren’t that many pilots around,” Ott said. “We are designing these systems so anybody can run them.”

Paluch said they had to work with state and federal partners to “ensure pesticide companies and applicators are applying pesticides safely” when reviewing Rantizo’s application.

To date, Rantizo is the only license application the Pesticide Bureau has received that involves pesticide application via drone or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), Paluch said.

While it is required that an operator have a controller in hand, the drones have a lot of autonomous qualities.

“We’ll train you so you are never actually flying the drone and the drone is flying itself,” Ott said. “The flights are fully automated. It will land in the same spot in the same orientation.”

Some of the automation comes from satellite imagery, which allows producers to mark out spots they want the drone to cover in its flight path. Some terrain requires precise flying, but once the land is in the system, it is saved for easy access the next time a farmer needs to make a pass.

Ott said they are working on automating the reload process as well.

“Ultimately, we want to have it where no one is out there,” he said.

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