Michael Ott can see a future where a fleet of drones flies over a farm field, doing the same work planes and tractors do today.
A co-founder of Rantizo, a agriculture-technology startup, Ott and business partner Matthew Beckwith are working on a way for farmers to more precisely deliver chemicals, such as fertilizer, to their fields. Instead of using heavy tractors that can compress crops and spray gallons of liquid, Rantizo endeavors to have the job get done by drones mounted with sprayers that send out electrically-charged droplets, which will enable liquid chemicals to wrap around and stick to plants.
“I really think the end goal will be autonomous fleets of drones that are able to deliver precise amounts of chemicals right where they need to be,” Ott said. “The whole wrap-around effect is important because then your solution sticks to the leaf where it’s desired. It doesn’t drip on the ground, it doesn’t get in the water supply, it doesn’t drift over to your neighbor’s field and then damage your neighbor’s field.”
The spraying of fertilizer and pesticides is an area “ripe for innovation,” Ott said.
“There’s not a lot of innovations that happen in spraying. What farmers are using in the fields now, it’s essentially what they used decades ago, just bigger,” he said. “Also, what’s happening is, farmers are applying a lot of chemicals and these chemicals are less and less effective, which leads to greater application of chemicals, which makes it less and less effective. You get caught in that negative feedback cycle and you need to find a way to break it.”
Rantizo’s drones will use small cartridges to dispense chemicals, since statically charging the liquids means less is needed to cover a field, Ott said. To start, Rantizo will focus on solving problems in small areas of a field, such as confined infestations.
“Then, once we learn a lot about how to make that work, we can go to swarms and then you can have a swarm of four, eight, 20, 60, 80 (drones) flying through the fields and doing this in a much larger form,” he said.
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The agriculture industry has been viewed as an area prime to take advantage of drone technology. The flying, unmanned vehicles can be used to survey fields, take images and apply treatments.
Ott is based in Iowa City while Beckwith is currently in Boston. The company, however, has gained recent attention in Tennessee.
In early March, Rantizo — Greek for “to spray” — won the AgLaunch Startup Station Pitch Contest in Memphis, a competition for ag-tech start-ups to show off their products before farmers and agriculture-industry members. The win netted Rantizo an all-expenses paid trip and a chance to pitch at the 2018 Farm Journal AgTech Expo in Indianapolis.
Two other Iowa ag-tech start-ups, Cedar Rapids-based SwineTech and Waukee-based AgriSync, also pitched during the AgLaunch competition.
Rantizo also plans to test its sprayer-equipped drones in cotton fields in Memphis since cotton is the most sprayed crop, Ott said. Rantizo does want to have its system used back home in Iowa and Nebraska, though, Ott said.
“The big acres are where we want to be. Cotton, there’s a large number of acres devoted to it, but not nearly what corn and soybeans are. We want to get into the big crops,” he said.
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