#023 – Drones in Agriculture: How They're Really Being Used with Norm Lamothe

this episode is brought to you by up saunder the easiest way to monetize your drone with the industry's only million dollar protection coverage free to its members up saunder is the top choice among certified drone pilots to get up and stay up to get started create your free listing today at UPS under calm welcome to commercial drones fm the podcast that explores the commercial drone industry the people who power it and the concepts that drive it I'm your host Ian Smith hey everybody and welcome to commercial drones FM today I'm sitting here in a hotel in San Francisco with our guests normally mouth of devaron UAS out of Toronto Canada he's a farmer and a quick fun fact is that norm was actually and I'm not even making this up mr. October in the farming calendar from his province so welcome to the show norm is that true yeah it is Ian thanks for having us we I was I was part of the food farm care Ontario was the the group that puts on the farming calendar on an annual basis and I've had the pleasure and luxury of working with them over the last year and it was a great opportunity they asked me to be their poster child and it was a lot of fun total farming studmuffin you know what we're gonna have to do is we're gonna actually have to make the episode picture that picture if they'll allow us to use it or if you have full-blown rights for its own full-blown rights I'll send it to no yes okay so you will see the album artwork of this it's glorious and norm you are a real farmer are you not I am a farmer and funny enough I if you were to look back three or four years I wouldn't have said that I would find myself in the drone space here today it was actually I left the 10 year career in aviation to pursue the family farm and one of our local farmers in the area knowing that I had some background in aviation was attending some shows in the US and he recognized at that point in time that Joan's are gonna play a role in agriculture and suggests that I look into the space I did that in early 2015 and that process decided that we're gonna make a move on a piece of hardware at that time signed up a few local growers who were supportive of the technology and we used the technology throughout 2015 quickly realized that drones had a space in agriculture and there was a tremendous opportunity to help growers increase their yields and and decrease their inputs and I was already thinking of a natural expansion when I met the company that I'm currently working for now and that is a company that we co-founded together with our CEO Dave McMillan and it's called Devron UAS Devron UAS is a commercially listed company on the Toronto or on that Stock Exchange in Canada and for me it was an awesome opportunity to expand on something that I was already thinking of doing using the public vehicle and for Devron it was a unique opportunity to get into the space with with someone that was doing something in the field and in real time so my family and I we farm about a 500 acre plot a near near Toronto Ontario mix of corn soy wheat we also have a small maple syrup operation in America and I can attest to the deliciousness of that maple syrup you you mentioned I can that's like I'm actually a little bit shocked 2015 is when you started using drones so you've so to grow seasons now yeah I jumped in with with both feet forward and really took a liking to the industry I had followed the UAV space quite a bit previously my last job in aviation was as an insurance broker and and we were insuring we were primarily insure on a lot of UAVs in Canada so I'd been following the space quite closely from from that perspective I knew what was going on I saw that there was a lot of activity in it and I knew that there was an opportunity for us to use my background in aviation but also my knowledge of Agriculture to bring it to the growers that's awesome and so devran what kind of company is Devron I mean you guys are based in Toronto Canada you're publicly traded on the Canadian stock market which is awesome we'll touch on that and a little bit but what exactly is it that you guys do in agriculture with drones yeah so dev runs a full-service remote sensing company and we focus 100% on agriculture so through a fleet of pilots and drones we go out and collect data that that we use to help growers like I said increase yields and and decrease inputs across a variety of crops and and we work with a lot of software and analytics partners to help provide some ROI for those growers and when you say decrease inputs that is what is the purpose of decreasing inputs and what are inputs for those that are listening that might not be aware yeah inputs are the three big ones they're seeds they're fertilizer and they're chemical products or crop protection products so farmers have to use all three of those products in order to sustain a crop in the field and what we're looking to do is farmers use those more efficiently so whether that's decreasing fertilizer inputs to get the same yield whether that's decreasing a crop production protection or not using a crop protection product where it's not needed and and the same goes for seeds week we have the technology now to do a lot of variable rate seeding in the fields and we're helping growers create the zones through the imagery and the remote sensing that we gather from the air to allow them to place those seeds more efficiently and more effectively in the fields excellent so well I heard you say zones as well so I'm picking up on all the things that I've been learning and we'll go over zones in a little bit I'll kind of request that we we go over you know I want to hear ideally a story or two you know maybe some of your big successes using drones and AG I know for example we've talked about probably at least five or six cases I think we collaborated on a case study that we wrote quite a quite a while ago quite awhile ago it was not even well maybe it was a year ago actually about a year ago on the drone deploy blog but anyways maybe you can tell me about a specific time that you you use a drone on a field and you were really successful with it and and you found some some insight that you normally might not have discovered yeah I mean we did the we did the soybean case study with drone deploy in 2050 and then that was you know a real eye-opener for anyone who is looking into drones and and determining how the growers gonna get a return on investment for using remote sensing in agriculture what we've what we found through the process of using UAVs in Ag is that you need a lot of data you need a lot of data to be able to do proper analytics and anyone can collect data in in the field but collecting good data is very difficult to do and as a commercial service provider that's where our focus lies the opportunities for for agriculture the way I see it are areas that are prescriptive and areas that are predictable so anytime you can take an image and use it to do a prescription whether that be for fertilizer for water management for disease and pest control and apply that to the field on a variable rate scale or reducing what you would normally do is as what I would call a normal practice tremendous opportunity for return on investment the second area that I see as potential moving forward is areas that are predictable so that's using remote sensing to identify a problem in the field before you can see it with the naked eye and and those are the Holy Grail items for us in agriculture but we've seen tremendous we've seen tremendous headway in some of the things that we're seeing already and I think as we gather more data there'll be more and more opportunities for that so we've we've we're gonna be publishing a few case studies at the end of this growing season I don't also on where those ro eyes are and as a grower I'll be the first one to tell you that if you show up in my door is all me something if you're not gonna be able to provide me a two to one or a three to one return on my investment I'm not interested and so we're looking to demonstrate to growers areas where we can fly you the fly the field you know the grower pays the cost of having a drone there to collect data and then they're able to make a decision where they're able to get that two to one or three to one or or four or five in certain circumstances one one real exciting one has to do with variable rate nitrogen and using a prescription base real quick variable rate meaning and if this has to do with the zones right the zones on the area so I'm taking this down a couple notches because I'm really passionate about helping the other people absorb and learn you know people that don't know AG too well and understand that you can't just provide someone an NDVI map as well and call it a day and brush your hands clean but variable-rate application and zones what exactly what does that mean yeah so a normal practice would be you would put down a product at a standard rate and you would apply that rate over an entire field so the fertilizer or I think fertilizer water crop protection product foliar nutrient product or program that you have in your crops so you would just go through and you would put down the exact same rate across the entire field now we're breaking that down into different zones so we're looking at areas where plants have a stronger health a medium health and a poor health and we're identifying areas where there's potential for that crop to reach a full maturity or you know a higher yield and and we're either increasing or decreasing the the products that were using in relation to how the plants are going to respond to that so in nitrogen for instance if if you had an area that was flooded out or an area that was drought stricken why would you give that area more nitrogen if if it doesn't have the water and it doesn't have the capacity to become a full mature crop in that area then what why would we bother putting more money and fertilizer to just watch it do nothing so the the idea of variable rate nitrogen applications is to to feed the crops that are gonna do well and have the potential to do well so we've we've got some really great case studies that we're gonna publish one of them has to do with nitrogen and potatoes potatoes require a lot of nitrogen and typically the applications of nitrogen are split out over several several applications throughout the year so between images and information that we gather with a remote sensing we can go in and look to see what the changes have been and then identify areas where nitrogen is required and where nitrogen it's not required and in the grower rather than just putting that the same standard grade on every so many weeks he's able to or she's able to modify that to a variable rate and ultimately save money and how are these applications how are they actually applied to the field what is what tools are used to do that yeah so it's equipment on the ground it's tractors they'll be spreaders that that those applications can be either as a dry fertilizer or as a liquid fertilizer and every operation is different and that's that's one of the challenges and using remote sensing is that the farmer still has to have the ability to go into the field and make the timely applications based on on the information that we gather from the from the journal gotcha and so we mentioned NDVI maps and they're slight misconceptions around those I mean I know we've talked about this before again this is a recurring theme but maybe you can talk about what is the value of an NDVI map to you NDVI on its own it's it's not a new technology it's been around for a very long time gathering quality data is something that we strive for in our business and in our commercial offering if you fly a field one day you should be able to go back and fly that field the next day and get very similar NDVI values if you're not using calibrated imagery to do that you're not getting you're not getting that and if you're using that imagery to then make a prescription decision that imagery has to be calibrated so it's very important NDVI is is a starting block of of what we're going to see agriculture develop into you through the use of remote sensing but it it's a it's a very basic tool to be used at this point in time ensign but you're not just gonna go ahead and you're not going to take a drone up create a near-infrared you know data set and Evi map and then and that over to a grower and say here you go give me my 200 bucks or whatever it is yeah I know there's so much more to it that's just one piece of the puzzle I mean in my opinion drones have been a little bit oversold in agriculture they there's a lot of myths about what drones can do anyone can go to a local store and buy a very low price drone and use it in the field but whether or not they can actually use it to make decisions that will have a return on investment for them is a completely different story even the NDVI it's it's that one little piece of a puzzle and and there's so many other factors you need to take into consideration the weather the topography and the historical fertilizer applications in those fields historical yields and variability and where does that NDVI map fit into that field over the historical variability is it the same or are we looking for hotspots that are outside of that norm gotcha norm I kind of I kind of threw that one out there so okay so there's some misconceptions out there it's safe to say there are also reports by I don't even know goldman sachs or you know some of these other other large organizations that do studies that predict that agriculture might be the leading industry using drones do you agree disagree or what are you kind of seeing in that regard yeah I think the Economist in 2015 predicted that agriculture would be 80% of drone use moving forward agriculture is unique in that it's it's large its vast we have millions upon millions of acres across North America and in agriculture it's a huge industry it's it's controlled by very few players more and more there's less farmers out there and and the interesting thing about agriculture is that there's opportunities for recurring revenue so unlike other industries whether they're one-off one-off opportunities Agriculture's its repeatable business and it's important to gather historical data and to continue to collect data on a regular basis in agriculture because it does give you quite a bit of change over time as well what do you think are some of the biggest opportunity actually no I'm totally gonna rephrase this if you right now if you have to design the perfect AG drone what would some of its specs be yeah I mean we use both rotary wing and fixed-wing drones and UAVs in our fleet and they both have a place the rotary wings just aren't efficient enough to gather large a courage like the fixed wings are they both they both have a place there's their sites and locations where we've showed up and we've we've actually had the Colin a different type of UAV just based on on the landscape that we're dealing with the the type of terrain that we have to land and take off from I think we're gonna see probably in the next few years some really interesting vertical takeoff and landing UAVs and drones that they're gonna come on the marketplace that will fit both of those needs the the quad copters are nice you can get a great you know low and overview with them but they just don't have the efficiency to do mass acres we also have some regulatory restrictions as to mmm how big and how far we can go with our drones and in that line of sight right now as we start to progress to beyond line of sight we're gonna have a much more efficient method of collecting data on on a larger scale and we look forward to to that as well have you ever used a quadcopter for getting aerial data of a field yeah absolutely we we have two quad copters in our fleet and and I use one on a regular basis it's sort of a research platform for us we have three cameras on it and we can cover we can cover you know 40 or 50 acres with it and if it's a larger field we can easily swap the batteries and you know the software planning platforms like drone deploy has is an example of the ease of use of that type of technology and yeah they both have a place and we have them both on our fleet nice yeah so I think there's a lot of people that actually think that quad copters cannot do agricultural you know work because they don't have as much range but in reality they can be quite flexible okay cool so speaking of back it back to like the story part of this maybe you can tell me about a specific time where you used a drone on a field and what you uncovered like maybe a specific field or specific crop and and what what did it allow you to do afterwards yeah so we had we had severe drought in Ontario this year it was I believe province wide it was one of the worst seasons in 75 years and I know in our own farm we what we call 100-year drought so is multi-generational dry conditions and with those dry conditions comes disease pressure so plants are vulnerable they're they're under a lot of stress and disease comes in and sets in and insects and pests so we had spider mites which which is not a not a common pest for our crops but they do they do thrive very well in that type of environment so we had quite a few growers call us out to identify the percentage of the field that was affected by spider mite so they knew they had the pressure they didn't know how severe it was they didn't know if it was over a threshold and whether or not they needed to do anything to mitigate it and in several circumstances we went out we identified the percentage of the fields then that had spider mite damage they were then able to go in and mitigate that with crop protection products how did you like what did you what part of the data did you use like the ortho mosaic was there near infrared imagery involved yeah we're using your infrared and NDVI in that situation to identify the areas that are stressed and again you need boots on the ground so we would go to those stressed areas identify how bad it was and then knowing what the relative map at the field was able to identify the zones in the areas that needed to be mitigated and so there's a perfect example of the variable variable zone okay so rather than spraying the entire field they would just spray a portion of that field that is awesome okay what about the future I mean what do you see for the future of drones in Ag I mean you guys are heavily invested in that specifically with ever on UAS what are your thoughts on that I mean where do you see the space going evolving give us a little bit of insight right there yeah we're very excited about the the potential for things like machine learning and and in putting a ton of data into some of the predictive models if if we're able to identify signatures of areas that that that I've had problems in the past and if we were able to say you know this disease is showing up in this band at this point in time given these weather conditions and we're able to pump all that all those images and all that information into a machine learning tool that's pretty exciting because then then we can really scale scale up the business that we're doing III think there's I think there's a lot of opportunities to blend existing data along with along with the remote sensing information that we gather there's a lot of a lot of platforms out there right now that are really peaking our interest as well cool so full disclosure everyone who's listening I'm sure you heard the cacophony of San Francisco tourists inside the hotel computer room that were recording this and so that was actually hilarious there was a printing problem and quite a few senior citizens working feverishly together to try to fix that apologies for any background noise and losses of train of thought there I think norm you did an excellent job of keeping your concentration there so that was excellent I'm more impressed by the minute here so our guests have left us for now okay the last kind of thing I want to touch touch on is the venture exchange so as previously mentioned you guys are a publicly listed company on the Canadian Securities Exchange under the ticker symbol DVR that's Delta Victor Romeo what is how is that I mean like I can invest in in your company right now if I wanted to yeah absolutely we're a publicly traded company or our stocks trade freely on the Canadian securities exchange and any individual through their broker could could access those shares and and take part in the and the company's successes that's awesome and so that's an interesting strategy for you guys to take but the way I understand it is that you know it's a little bit different over in in you know Canada and that specific region than here in Silicon Valley where there's all these VCS and they'll just throw money around millions of bucks what's the what's the thought process in taking that route yeah for us for us it was a the Devron was a publicly traded company before it entered into drones it was in the mining space and it's a perfect vehicle for for the company to grow and for us to access capital as it's needed so right now we've were focused in in Ontario and in 2016 and as we're looking to expand westerly and southerly it's an opportunity for us to access additional capital as needed for hardware purchases and expansion plans and it's a very efficient method for us to grow fascinating so you can invest if you're listening and you want so you can invest Canadian securities exchange ticker symbol Delta Victor Romeo normal one last question is what kind of advice what's one piece of advice you know if there's a young whippersnapper maybe getting out of high school someone very entrepreneurial maybe it's someone older and looking for a career change and they want to use drones and AG what kind of advice would you give them I mean lessons learned you know things things that they need to be very confident in doing and being able to deliver at a high level and consistency what would you say to that yeah there's so much more to collecting imagery in agriculture than just taking a drone out of the box and saying that you you have a service there's there's multiple layers and I've touched on to so many times collecting good data is extremely important agriculture is a very complex system it's become very scientific and yeah it's it's a it's a unique space to operate in for us but it's a it's a difficult one to to come into the the other thing I would I would touch on is that you know hardware is a commodity there's so many drones out there there's so many sensors out there and there's so many software and analytics tools out there and really what what we've been able to do and how we've differentiated ourselves as a service company is the ability to integrate all of those into into one another and and the ability to be able to shift and change our decisions related to those on a yearly basis the space is changing so fast the prices of UAVs and the technology is improving constantly I mean if even if you look at where we started and where we're gonna be next year we'll we'll be on our third and fourth model of UAVs just through that very short time period so it's very difficult for someone to keep up with the technology on on a small scale and and that's one of the reasons why we toute that were a service company and we take on a lot of that risk for growers so we were able to do it much more efficiently than than anyone could ever internalize those costs at a commercial scale I totally agree man you guys are doing a heck of a job you can go ahead and you can follow devran uas on twitter at devran uas that's de ve ro n and you can follow norm himself at Woodley farms on Twitter which is really interesting because he's posting pictures from the field in a real farm doing real work on it on the ground with with the boots in the dirt so would Lia spell wo OD le IG H thank you so much for the maple syrup delivery over here back in San Francisco I'm gonna restock my pantry and you can check out the website for devran at devran UAS comm keep an eye out for those case studies from you guys I'm super stoked and really really interested in reading them a lot has changed in a year as as you know so thank you everyone for listening thanks again norm for your time you can follow the podcast at drones podcast on Twitter hit us up on Facebook facebook.com slash drones podcast and shoot us a note you have any follow-up questions for norm I'm sure I can accost him and get him to provide an answer but appreciate you joining us yeah thanks a lot Ian it was great being here we'll have to have you up in Canada in an extent absolutely I've been meaning to make that trip alright everyone thanks for listening Cheers

There are many misconceptions on how to effectively use drones in agriculture. Norm Lamothe is a farmer, seasoned commercial drone operator, and co-founder at Deveron UAS—a publicly traded, Canadian drone service company. Norm joins Ian to set the story straight by discussing how farmers are really using drones and what they can accomplish by deploying them above their fields.

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