Business

Drones used for deliveries, agriculture and claims inspections after Cedar Rapids derecho storm

A Rantizo DJI Agras MG-1P drone sprayer finishes a demonstration flight outside of Iowa City on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (
A Rantizo DJI Agras MG-1P drone sprayer finishes a demonstration flight outside of Iowa City on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Whether it’s for examining high-voltage power lines and natural gas pipelines, or seeding and spraying crops in a field, drones are getting a lot of attention, in Iowa and elsewhere.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have evolved from an experimental technology to a legitimate replacement for traditional human methods in many applications.

They’re even being used to inspect damage to homes and businesses after Aug. 10’s derecho storm.

Companies such as American Robotics of Marlborough, Mass., are using drones equipped with sensors and digital imaging technology for agricultural applications, providing analysis of crop and soil conditions.

Still others, such as Rantizo of Iowa City, are taking it a step further by developing drone systems for precision spraying of fungicides and herbicides as well as pollinating and seeding.

“Our drones provide plant health diagnostics, everything from the physiological health of the plant to yield counting,” said Mike Burdick, director of sales for American Robotics. “We are helping growers tailor their inputs much more appropriately.

“It reduces overall costs and boosts yields in the areas of the field that need it.”

Burdick said American Robotics also sees a variety of energy and industrial applications for drones.

“We see drones being used to inspect oil and natural gas pipelines,” he said. “We think drones will be a cost-effective and safer means of inspecting high voltage power lines.”

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High voltage power line inspections are expensive and time consuming. Inspections usually are performed by one of three methods — walk, drive or fly.

Most utility companies choose helicopter-based power line inspections.

An average contract for a helicopter power line inspection costs more than $4,000 per day.

The same inspection using a fixed-wing drone will cost a fraction of a helicopter inspection, drone industry officials said, and can access areas that would be dangerous or inaccessible.

Michael Ott, co-founder and CEO of Rantizo, said his company has used drones in areas where pilots flying crop-dusting aircraft have serious safety concerns.

“You don’t want to be flying airplanes around wind turbines,” Ott said. “We can work with crop dusters to eliminate the risk to a person by getting them out of the way.

“In a worst-case scenario, we would have an equipment issue but not a person at risk.”

Rantizo drones fly autonomously, communicating with a single human controller in a field. Each drone is equipped with global-positioning system software, enabling it to know its precise location.

“Our drones also are equipped with radar and collision avoidance software,” Ott said. “Our standard GPS is accurate to within one yard. With an RTK (Real Time Kinematic) upgrade, our drones will be accurate to within one inch.”

Accuracy is a serious concern for organic farmers who do not want their crops inadvertently sprayed with fungicides or herbicides.

Ott said farmers want to spray where crops will be harvested, rather than border areas where they are consumed by wildlife.

Rantizo is scaling up its productivity using swarms of drones — three or more.

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“With our swarming technology, we will cover about 40 acres per hour, which is very close to what a tractor can do,” Ott said. “Right now, we have autonomous flights of (drone) swarms being reloaded (with chemicals) manually. Next, we are going to autonomous flights of drones being reloaded autonomously.

“That will increase our productivity from 40 acres per hour to about 60 acres per hour, which is comparable to using a tractor. We are a couple of months away from that.”

Rantizo purchases spray drones from a leading manufacturer in China. Ott said his company strips off all the spraying components and upgrades them to cover 14 acres an hour, up from six acres an hour.

“Our ultimate goal is to become 100 percent autonomous,” he said. “The loading system will be contained in a box in the field.

“Someone will come by each month to reload chemicals and water.”

Federal and state regulations govern the use of drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the registration of drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds.

Drones must be kept within a pilot’s line of sight and cannot be flown within five miles of an airport.

Drone pilots or controllers must pass the FAA Part 107 test to be licensed to fly drones commercially in the United States.

Drones used for agricultural spraying require the pilot to have the same certification and licensing as a crop duster.

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Ott said drone pilots currently are required to have an applicators license for each state, which can take time to acquire.

Rantizo recently was given FAA approval for the use of swarming drones in all 48 states — the first company to receive such blanket authorization.

To protect privacy and public safety, the FAA has regulations regarding flying drones over public property and gatherings.

One of the more unusual uses of drones is found in Third World countries.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley start-up, is delivering blood in Rwanda. Getting hold of blood for transfusions at the Kabgayi District Hospital can be difficult and time consuming, involving round trips of three to four hours.

Zipline drones can make the same trip in 15 minutes. The company plans to set up similar delivery systems in 21 facilities.

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