AKRON, Ohio–Drinking in the scene as you drive through Ohio farm country these days, you might guess that the corn is about as high as an elephant’s eye, as the oldsong goes.
Farmers, it turns out, need a surer assessment of the height and the health of their crops. Unseen pests and weeds can hobble those racing rows of corn. It’s not easy to inspect hundreds of acres of soybeans near the full bloom of harvest.
Jeff Taylor, a 27-year old rocket scientist with a passion for unmanned aircraft, is offering farmers a new, bird’s eye view. His Akron startup, Event 38 Unmanned Systems, is bringing drone technology to the farm belt –and maybe giving Ohio an edge in a blossoming industry.
Taylor’s pilotless, miniature airplanes–which snap high-resolution photos of crops, cattle, soil and much else that farmers worry about–are selling about as fast as he can make them.
Drone use is still a little outlaw, as inventors and entrepreneurs wait for the Federal Aviation Administration to write the rules of the game. But most experts agree a new industry is dawning fast. As it pioneers a niche, Event 38 is expecting to soar.
John Blair, a seasoned entrepreneur from San Francisco, recently joined the two-year-old company as second in command. He’s assembling an executive team and looking for capital to build out the technology platform.
Meanwhile, the company is working with Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, refining the art of crop scouting.
And Taylor, an aerospace engineering graduate of Case Western Reserve University, is nearing his dream of seeing drones put to useful, even essential use.
He’s been tinkering with flying machines for years, building better, cheaper and more helpful drones as fellow hobbyists were content to race them through the air, he says.
“I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to get this out there,” he said of his work. “These things could be useful to a lot of people.”
One of his first jobs, with spacecraft maker SpaceX in California, gave him the company name. His part of a space project had the dramatic title of Event 38.
Taylor launched his company solo in 2012. As online orders trickled in, he realized he needed a place to manufacture and he knew just where to go.
Last year, he moved home from San Diego and set up shop in Canal Place, in a former B.F. Goodrich plant in downtown Akron, and began tapping the region’s entrepreneurial support network.
Three months ago, Blair joined the team, leaving his position as a venture partner for JumpStart. Blair had been advising Taylor and said he saw a transformative product.
“This is more of a big data play than flying airplanes over your head,” said Blair, noting the river of new information that will be generated by drones. “This is far and away the biggest opportunity that I’ve seen.”
The farm market emerged unexpectantly. But then, so have many drone applications.
Magical new vehicle takes flight
A machine once associated with warfare and spy games is quickly taking on broader uses. Small, fast and relatively cheap, drones have emerged in the popular culture as something as handy as an owl at Hogwarts.
Amazon and Google have been testing delivery drones. Last week, a college student in Texas had his picture-snapping drone seized when he flew it over a football game.
Drones can carry powerful cameras to commanding vantage points, a capability prized by more than real estate agents looking to showcase properties.
Drones–including those made by Event 38–are being used to survey remote terrain, inspect volcanoes and scan archeological sites. Off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean Sea, conservationists are using them to fight illegal fishing.
In Northeast Ohio, Taylor and his team envision adding another essential tool to the family farm. He’s working with agronomists like Rory Lewandowski, a county extension educator in Wayne County, where farms tend to stretch across 400 to 800 acres.
“That’s hard to walk,” Lewandowski said.
The camera in Taylor’s drone can spy a diseased leaf from 400 feet, he notes. With that kind of clarity, farmers can spread fertilizers and pesticides more strategically, and practice greener “precision agriculture.”
“There’s a lot of potential,” Lewandowski said. “A farmer needs to be on top of his crops. He needs information to make decisions.”
Suddenly, the back 40 is not so far away.
“You can see everything”
Thursday evening, as the setting sun slanted across a sea of ripening stalks, setting their brown tassels aglow, Taylor readied a drone for a mission.
He punched some keys on a laptop computer in the back of his SUV, which was parked on a gravel trail that sliced into cornfields outside of Ravenna in Portage County.
Zack Ranta, the 28-year-old farmer who planted the corn, helped him find the property lines on Google Maps.
In minutes, Taylor had programmed the autopilot on a spindly-looking plane with a 6-foot wingspan. A strong, lightweight, Styrofoam-like polymer encased an engine, batteries, a guidance system and a couple of bottles of ballast water.
With the prop whirring, Taylor raced forward a few steps and, as a child would a glider, tossed his $2,700 aircraft.
It sped low and fast and then arced, bird-like, into the late summer sky. Soon, it was cutting long, measured lines over the green fields.
The drone carried a thermal imaging camera that reads heat. That means it can count cows, or gauge the temperature of a plant.
That tells Ranta which plants are parched and which are over-watered and where he needs to lay drain tiles.
“It’s tremendously helpful,” said Ranta, a part-time farmer and a full-time heavy equipment operator. “We don’t always have time to walk the field. He sends his little plane up and you can see everything.”
Greetings from Iowa
For now, such scouting missions are only test runs.
The FAA is expected to introduce regulations specific to drones next summer. Until then, it is not legal to use them for commercial purposes–though many obviously do.
Brisk online sales hint at a market ready to mushroom. The company is selling 15 to 20 drones a month, with about half going abroad, Taylor said.
Oddly strong sales in Iowa–the heart of the corn belt– prompted a survey of customers in April. That’s when Event 38 discovered its fan base. About 40 percent of its drones were being bought by farmers.
Taylor meets them frequently now. Plenty are skeptical.
“They think it’s cool at the same time,” he said. “They’re really more into technology than people might expect. Their fields are huge.”
And Taylor knows, as the farmers do, that a lot of work and study goes into growing a field to be admired from the road.