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Jonathan Knutson, Forum News Service, Published July 12 2013

Precision ag up above the fields so high

GRAND FORKS – When David Dvorak launched Field of View in 2010, he foresaw a bright future for aerial crop imagery. Today, after working with farmers, agronomists and even a South American plantation manager, he’s more optimistic than ever.

“A few years ago, there was some behind-the-scenes interest in this,” says Dvorak, CEO of Grand Forks-based Field of View.

Now, “I’m quietly confident there’s this perfect storm brewing where the precision agriculture market really takes off and the civil UAS (unmanned aircraft system) market takes off. They’re both on a trajectory to make that happen about the same time,” he says.

Field of View’s mission is to “bridge the gap between unmanned aircraft and precision agriculture,” according to the company’s website.

Its flagship product, GeoSnap, is an add-on device for multispectral cameras mounted on either manned or unmanned aircraft. Such cameras capture images in the red, green and near-infared bands, allowing users to visualize plant stress better than they can with most other camera systems, Dvorak says.

GeoSnap takes images captured by the multispectral camera and maps them with real-world coordinates, a process known as georeferencing. That allows users to know the aerial images’ exact location on the ground.

“It’s a very complex process. We developed a product that hopefully makes the process easier,” Dvorak says.

GeoSnap costs about $5,000 per unit, with the multispectral cameras costing about $4,000 each.

Field of View only recently began selling the add-on devices. So far, the company has sold a half-dozen, including one to NASA.

Dvorak thinks NASA will use the GeoSnap to learn more about vegetative cover on Earth, though he isn’t sure of specifics.

GeoSnap generally has drawn more interest overseas because other countries have fewer restrictions on air space, he says.

A role in precision ag

Precision agriculture is one of the hottest topics in modern farming. It involves fine-tuning the application of seed, fertilizer and pesticide on every square foot of a field to improve yields and reduce costs.

Aerial imagery is a natural fit in precision ag and can be used with almost any crop, Dvorak says.

Farmers, of course, already scout their fields for potential chemical needs, but aerial images are “an important part of the equation. Hopefully, our products will save time. Instead of walking the entire field, you’ll concentrate on parts of the field that look suspicious. Hopefully, you can cover more fields in a day,” Dvorak says.

Both precision agriculture and multispectral aerial imagery are relatively young, Dvorak says.

“I’m not sure ‘infancy’ is quite right. Maybe ‘toddler’ is more accurate. I think they’ll mature quite nicely together,” he says.

For now, the technology will be used primarily by companies that specialize in it, Dvorak says. But he foresees the time when individual farmers who also are pilots use it, too.

“What really excites me about being in this business is that it’s about the most win-win situation I’ve ever come across,” Dvorak says. “The farmer gets the win because he either increases his yield or saves money on chemicals. The environment gets the win because of the reduction in chemicals. And precision ag service providers like me get the win.”

Upward trajectory

Paul Gunderson, director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, says UAV images have many agricultural applications, including the evaluation of weeds, crop disease and insects in fields.

“It’s an interesting technology at the individual producer level,” he says.

For now, few companies are making products that use the technology, which limits their use.

But that will change as the products’ cost declines, just as the use of personal computers rose as their price fell, Gunderson says.

“The sales trajectory for production agriculture looks like it will outpace all other uses (for UAV imagery) by several magnitudes going forward,” he says.

The Dakota Precision Ag Center already has one UAV and is acquiring two more, he says.

Though details haven’t been worked out yet, UAVs almost certainly will be on the agenda of the 2014 Precision Agriculture Summit to be held in January in Jamestown, Gunderson says.

Company shifts focus

Dvorak, 26, grew up in St. Cloud, Minn., and came to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks to study engineering.

He’s not a farm kid. “I wish I was. Maybe that would make some of this a little easier,” he says with a smile.

At UND, he developed a special interest in the use of unmanned aircraft and multispectral cameras in precision agriculture.

“I made that my baby and spun off Field of View from that experience,” he says.

Field of View began as a service provider to farmers. “We’d go out and fly fields (to collect information on them) and charge ‘X’ number of dollars per acre,” Dvorak says. “But we’ve evolved. Today, we’re more of a technology company.”

Besides developing the GeoSnap products, Field of View does consulting and training and also is a reseller of multispectral cameras and software.

Through its relationship with Tetracam, a multispectral camera company based in Los Angeles, Field of View conducts four workshops annually in the Los Angeles area. The next one is set for Aug. 19 to 21 in Simi Valley, near Los Angeles.

Dvorak, at past workshops, has met everyone from farmers and agronomists to South American plantation managers and people who want to start an imaging company.

Field of View has three employees, all of them UND graduates.

Dvorak and Kaci Lemler, a system engineer who grew up in Buxton, N.D., work in an office building south of Grand Forks. The third employee, also an engineer, works in San Jose, Calif.

Lemler joined the company earlier this year.

“So we’re growing and able to add employees,” Dvorak says.

Field of View continues to refine and upgrade its products, and also is adapting its technology to digital cameras.

Some customers want to use both multispectral and digital cameras to take crop images, Dvorak says.

Pilots, satellites

The GeoSnap products can be used with cameras on both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Both types have their advantages. Unmanned aircraft typically are cheaper to operate and easier to store. Manned aircraft generally can cover larger areas and get to their destinations faster, Dvorak says.

Some agriculturalists already are familiar with the use of satellite imagery in precision agriculture.

Typically, satellite imagery provides greater convenience than UAV imagery, Dvorak says.

“Nobody has to drive out to a field with a satellite (because satellites are automated),” he says.

On the other hand, UAVs can provide a customized, “on-demand factor” that satellites don’t, he says.

Privacy worries?

Some people worry that UAVs jeopardize individual privacy. Dvorak is well aware of those concerns.

“I’m just like everyone else. I don’t want someone spying on my backyard,” he says. “It’s important that people understand that any technology can be used for good or bad. This just happens to be new technology that’s gotten a lot of media (attention) lately.

“What we’re promoting, and what people in this industry are promoting, is the use of unmanned aircraft as a mapping tool for crops. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Aerial crop imagery, Dvorak says, “is not a cure-all. It’s basically an additional tool in the toolbag for farmers to have. It’s another source of accurate information to help them manage their farm.”

To learn more, visit www.diydrones.com, a forum for people interested in unmanned aerial vehicles, and www.fieldofviewllc.com.


Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek