Boulder businesses want to use drones to help farmers control weeds


By Charlie Brennan

BOULDER — Two Boulder businesses are hoping to bring pioneering drone technology to the age-old business of farming — if only federal regulators will let them out of the barn.

InventWorks and Boulder Labs have developed a drone they believe could revolutionize the multibillion-dollar business of agriculture, by offering farmers precise location of weeds that require suppression far more efficiently than could be achieved by any other means.

To some they are known as unmanned aircraft systems, and to others they are autonomous aerial vehicles, but in headlines they are drones. And for many, anything with that label smacks of lethal military strikes or spying.

“In the area of drones, when people are horrified, it’s because they assume it’s only a military technology, and they say, ‘They should be illegal,’ ” said Tom Mc-Kinnon, managing director of InventWorks.

“But when you ask should they be available to help out in the search for a missing child, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ As long as the scary stuff is off the table, such as weaponizing drones, generally, the public is in favor of it.”

Jim Sears, head of new product development at Boulder Labs, added: “The fact that we’re in an agricultural application area takes away a lot of the concerns about privacy, which is what a lot of people have. This is not going to threaten people’s sense of privacy, and doing a precision drone strike on weeds sounds like a good thing.”

It’s not yet known what the two companies’ business model will look like once they can hang out a shingle and charge farmers for their service. Nor have they decided under what business name it will operate.

And, to be precise, they are not offering “drone strikes” on weeds. Instead, they are developing a 4-pound, 6-foot-wingspan drone equipped with multispectral cameras that can capture high-resolution, geo-tagged photographs every few seconds. Those images are then transferred to a ground-based computer where they are merged to create a continuous image of a large farming operation.

The data is processed into image recognition computer algorithms that can recognize features as precise as individual weeds and tie them to GPS coordinates.

By allowing farmers with large acreage to know precisely where the weeds are, they believe farmers can save up to 80 percent per acre on herbicide-based weed suppression.

They have tested their product primarily with a farmer whose dryland operation in northern Montana is nearly the size of Manhattan Island.

The greatest hurdle to InventWorks and Boulder Labs launching their venture is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is under a congressional mandate to incorporate drones into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

There is a long list of business interests eager to see the FAA finalize a regulatory structure. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group, the first three years of drones’ introduction into the national air space would see $13.6 billion in economic activity and 34,000 new manufacturing jobs. The FAA has estimated up to 10,000 drones could be airborne in the U.S. within five years.