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Montana Ag Network: Drones becoming integral part of Ag industry

Drones are being used for a variety of purposes
Doug Weist using a drone
Posted at 12:58 PM, Apr 12, 2023

TETON COUNTY - Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from larger, fixed-wing drones to the more common smaller ones like you may have used.

All of these drones already have a variety of uses and applications in the Ag industry and that's only likely to increase as time goes on.

Doug Weist has been using drones for agricultural purposes for the better part of a decade.

"I've got a couple different drones. Obviously, the consumer-level one here, the Mavic. It's a fairly advanced consumer drone. That's kind of used more for surveying, 3-D mapping. It's got a high-resolution camera. Most farmers can have those. (I) started out with an older model of that and then moved into a fixed-wing," Weist said, describing his drones.

One drone he doesn't have but is considering getting is a spray drone. These are drones that can, as the name suggests, carry and spray liquid or granular payloads.

"When we're talking about sprayers that cost almost $1 million and you can get four or five drones out there that are half the price or less it starts to, maybe, make sense," said Weist.

Hylio is a company that makes spray drones.

"These are fully autonomous drones that, basically, you define a work area for them to go treat. You give them certain parameters such as the speed you want them to apply at, the dosage you want them to apply at and then they go out and do that automatically," Hylio CEO and Co-founder Arthur Erickson said.

Erickson said the demand for drones has been "astonishing."

"We started in 2015 but we weren't actually selling our products, our drone platform, until 2019. But since 2019, we have been doubling sales year-over-year," Erickson elaborated. "Really, that's not just that demand is doubling. Demand is probably quintupling or multiplying 10x or something, but we have to scale up our manufacturing of course to be able to meet the sales that we get."

How the drones are being used varies.

"One of the most popular applications, to begin with, was fungicide applications, which are becoming increasingly popular in general as more farmers face fungal pressure. Since then, we've had a bunch of customers branch out to pretty much everything you might imagine," said Erickson.

As for the future of drones, he said the use will increase and they'll get bigger, but not infinitely bigger, and will become more automated.

Despite the advantage of drones, though, Weist doesn't expect them to completely replace ground rigs.

"Maybe for broad-acre Montana where the field is 600 acres, maybe the ground rig still has a big place. But (in) these 40, 50 acre fields and that drone can get in and out of there quicker and safer than a ground rig I think that has a place," said Weist.