March 27, 2014

Sales soar at AgEagle, Neodesha-based drone manufacturer

Orders have been coming in fast at AgEagle, a manufacturer of small, unmanned aerial vehicles in southeast Kansas.

Orders have been coming in fast at AgEagle, a manufacturer of small, unmanned aerial vehicles in southeast Kansas.

The company, based in Neodesha, began taking orders in January, and interest among those in agriculture has been high.

“Sales are brisk,” said Bret Chilcott, AgEagle’s founder. “I knew there was going to be a lot of interest, but the interest out of the chute is a bit more robust than I thought it was going to be.”

AgEagle is shipping to customers in the U.S. and around the world. Already, it’s boosting production. On Tuesday, it plans to increase production from one UAV to two per day.

And in May, “we’re going beyond that,” Chilcott said.

To meet production, the eight-employee company is hiring more people and bringing in more equipment.

Use of the AgEagle is currently allowed by the FAA as long as farmers operate them for their own use, Chilcott said.

“That’s what I was told from (a representative of) the FAA,” Chilcott said. “If it’s land they own or manage, they’re flying it for their own use.”

The Federal Aviation Administration “knows that the farming application is a lot safer than flying over people,” he said. “If you crash into corn, nobody is going to get hurt.”

The issue of UAV – or drone – regulation is murky, with the FAA issuing temporary rules while it comes up with regulations. A recent court ruling, however, said the FAA has no authority to enforce its temporary rules.

For now, farmers are using drones to scan fields and take infrared photos to detect the health of crops.

AgEagle creates an aerial map of the field showing where plants are healthy and where they need attention, he said.

Maps might show a need for fertilization, for example, or pest control in certain areas of the field.

Farmers can then apply chemicals only where needed, which saves costs and increases yields, Chilcott said.

For a large farm, the savings can be enough to pay for the AgEagle in the first year of operation, he said.

AgEagle has three or four U.S. competitors today.

Chilcott said his is the only company he knows of that concentrates solely on agriculture, although he’s had inquiries asking if the vehicles could be equipped to fly over power lines or count endangered animals.

“It’s just not our focus,” he said. “Our focus is ag only.”

The UAV, which Chilcott calls a “flying wing,” is made of fiberglass and carbon fiber materials. Its leading edge is made of Kevlar and carbon fiber.

Cost of the aircraft, the software, camera, launcher and a day of training totals $12,500.

“We really focus on keeping the technology simple and easy for people to operate,” Chilcott said. “We repurchase equipment from the hobby world and other industries. Our computer that controls the aircraft is an off-the-shelf computer.”

The aircraft automatically launches, scans the fields, and lands. It flies just under 400 feet above the ground and cruises at 40 mph.

“You don’t need piloting skills,” Chilcott said.

It has a 56-inch wingspan and is 6.5 inches tall and 28 inches long.

The AgEagle can cover more than 600 acres in a 30- to 40-minute flight, he said.

The design was influenced from interviews with hundreds of farmers about the potential use of robotic aircraft on farms.

AgEagle used technology transferred from Kansas State University’s agronomy department and refined it for commercialization.

“It’s been 24/7,” Chilcott said. “It’s about all I’ve done for the past couple of years.”

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