Note: You can watch a video of the swarm in action at the end of this story.
The unmanned aerial vehicle can be a versatile machine providing sky high views of farms. For the folks at Rantizo, the drone has always been seen as an efficient application tool. The challenge for the company was boost productivity to get more acres covered per hour, yet a single airship has limits. What about multiple airships at once flying in a swarm?
That's the answer and after a lot of work with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Rantizo has gained permits to operate legally with drone swarms in rural areas in the lower 48. "We don't have a geographic limit or huge buffers limiting where we can operate," says Michael Ott, CEO, Rantizo. "It was a long process [to earn the certification] with a lot of back and forth. We came up with a concept of operation that met their safety standards and we needed to provide data to show it worked."
The company calls the approach the Fly & Apply system, and this certification allows application in rural areas up to the field border.
Multiple drones commanded by a single pilot is not a new idea. Intel has been working with the idea and has produced its fair share of fancy light shows. But Ott and his team aren't interested in entertainment, they're interested in covering more acres per hour.
"Currently, we're working with three drones and one pilot, along with a visual observer and we'll be able to cover 40 acres per hour," Ott says. The company has also developed an autonomous loading system that will Mix & Fill the airships, which can boost productivity to 60 acres per hour. That system will be available by fall.
Ott talks about the slow march of boosting productivity, with 3 acres per hour as the start when the company got going. Hitting 40 acres per hour with three machines makes a difference.
"We wanted to hit the fungicide season with this certification, and we're thrilled about that," he says. "We can apply any fungicide that you can spray aerially."
Ott notes that application with the Rantizo system is not a broadcast over the whole field approach. This is a targeted system, using information the farmer or consultant have about infestations of weeds and diseases. The applications are then very precise, hitting only targeted areas as the airships make their sweep across the field.
The software for operating the swarm is autonomous, the pilot has a coverage map, and the drones can divide the field into thirds and cover the entire field. "Or we can upload a shape file identifying targeted spots of where they need to spray what's needed and fly to those spots," Ott says.
While licensed for drone swarm application in 48 states, the company is currently operating in 15 states, but Ott sees expansion in the future. And he sees more drones in that swarm and perhaps even more tech applied.
Another benefit of this swarm approach will be in the fall with cover crop seeding. Farmers who want to experiment with cover crops in many areas struggle with ways to get seed to the ground. Ott notes that the Rantizo system works well for cover crops and with the swarm tech they can get a lot more done.
As for the future? "Three drones is what we can have in the swarm now, but we could have five or ten and ultimately we can be completely unmanned," he says. "You would load the drones field side and they would fly only when they need to."
From the days of a farmer sitting field-side running a drone across a field, to high-end targeted application of crop protection products and even cover crop seed, the drone industry continues to advance. You can learn more about the Rantizo system at rantizo.com