Sun, May 29, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Drones moving into mainstream, inspire start-ups

By Aili McConnon  /  NY Times News Service

University of Florida sophomore Michael Lakin, 19, uses a brain-controlled interface headset to fly a drone during a mind-controlled drone race in Gainesville, Florida, on April 16.

Photo: AP

Over the past few years, drones have gone from being a contentious military tool for airstrikes to a far more mundane magnet for aerial hobbyists.

However, as drones move into the mainstream, entrepreneurs are finding ways to harness the technology as the core of their business ideas.

Ryan Jenson showed its business potential in a demonstration for his new venture, HoneyComb. His idea was to use drones to scout fields for irrigation and pest problems. If not caught early, such problems can cost farmers thousands of dollars a hectare.

Nevertheless, farmers were left scratching their heads.

Jenson said they asked him: “Why do we need those? And if we do, how can we afford them?”

He and his two cofounders at HoneyComb built a rough prototype. On a sunny day in August 2013, they gathered 50 growers at Gold Dust Farms, a 3,600-hectare farm in southern Oregon that specializes in potatoes.

Usually farmers scout for problems on foot, covering approximately 4 hectares per hour. The AgDrone from HoneyComb can cover more than 280 hectares per hour, producing high-resolution 2D and 3D maps that can be used to assess most aspects of crop health.

As the drone soared in the sky above, the growers watched a screen nearby that showed a view from the drone’s video camera of the fields below. Once the drone returned, they saw photographs it had taken on its trip.

“A big light bulb lit up,” said Jenson, 30, who had an interest in aerospace and engineering at young age, took college classes at age 14 and began working for NASA at 18. “When they realized: ‘You’re telling me I can see every square inch of my farm whenever I want?’ They were sold.”

One recent convert to HoneyComb’s AgDrone found an irrigation leak, saving him nearly US$100,000 in crop loss. Another grower was able to detect the onset of blight in his potatoes early enough to apply the needed fungicide in time to save the crop.

The Wilsonville, Oregon-based firm now has 16 employees and has raised US$2 million in financing.

HoneyComb is part of a new wave of commercial drone startups. Often described as “drone services,” these companies are one-stop shops, providing both the drones to collect the data and the software to analyze it afterward.

“From catastrophe response to news gathering to construction site monitoring, commercial drones represent one of the fastest-growing sectors in technology,” said Lisa Ellman, a partner and Washington-based co-chairwoman of the unmanned aircraft systems practice at the law firm Hogan Lovells.

While the opportunity looms large, starting a new business centered on drones (or unmanned aircraft systems, as they are officially known) has its challenges, not the least of which are laws that seem to be a moving target. Many of these startups are small and venture financing has been hard to secure.

“The regulations have made it very difficult for many small businesses to pull themselves up from the bootstraps,” said Jeffrey Antonelli, a Chicago lawyer whose legal practice focuses on drones.

However, the rules are slowly falling into place for commercial use of drone technology.

Since the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started issuing what it calls “exemptions” in September 2014, more than 5,200 permits have been issued to commercial drone operators.

Most have gone to larger companies. Companies in photography, film and real estate have received the largest share of these permits.

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