Beck's Hybrids amps up use of drones in ISU partnership | Crain's

Beck's Hybrids amps up use of drones in ISU partnership

  • Greg Betz, an instructor in ISU's unmanned systems program, flying drones with students. | Courtesy of Indiana State University.

  • Drones are only one of many unmanned vehicles ISU teaches its students how to use. | Courtesy of Indiana State University

  • ISU's two-day course for Beck's Hybrids employees doesn't include drone flying training. | Courtesy of Indiana State University

  • An aerial view of Beck's Hybrids in Atlanta, Indiana. | Courtesy of Beck's Hybrids

  • One of the drones used in ISU's unmanned systems program in the College of Technology. | Courtesy of Indiana State University

The use of drones in Indiana's farming industry is exploding, and Beck's Hybrids is cashing in on the opportunities drones provide for their customers.   

Beck's, a family-owned seed company based in Atlanta, Ind., has partnered with Indiana State University to create a two-day course on the Federal Aviation Administration's drone operator certification test. Beck's is getting more of its employees to be drone certified operators to take advantage of drone capabilities that can help maximize their yields and better serve their customers.   

For 80 years, Beck's has been selling hybrid crops. It grows corn, wheat, soybean and alfalfa seed for its customers in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, southern Michigan, western Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, southern Wisconsin and Missouri. To help its farming customers, Beck's has a team of experts it sends out to work one-on-one with them on how to incorporate new technologies in their crop production. In 2015, Beck's launched an app called, FARMserver, which its customers can use for data storage, management and analysis.  

With the help of drones, Beck's can take aerial photographs of its crops and customers' crops to identify problems in their fields, and resolve them quickly. The sooner Beck's can identify problems the less damage there will be to their crops.

"The more we know about a field, the more proscriptive we can be about it and the more we can treat each small segment of the field differently to get maximum yield," said Jim Love, light robotics manager at Beck's Hybrids.

ISU, located Terre Haute, Ind., already has held the course three times for about 60 of Beck’s 600 employees.   

The course doesn’t cover drone types, sensors, how to avoid crashes or how to manage a safety program, said Sam Morgan, the course instructor. Those are all things that are covered in ISU’s four-year unmanned systems program. The two-day course is the equivalent to a two-day driver’s education class on the FAA's part 107 test, he said   

Morgan, the director of the unmanned systems program at ISU, said, drones are only one of many unmanned systems ISU students are taught how to use in the UMS program. Students are taught how to use underwater vehicles, surface water vehicles, ground vehicles, aerial vehicles, satellites and rovers. Students learn about the applications of these systems and their industries, he said.   

The course was initially offered exclusively to Beck’s employee because Beck’s approached ISU about creating the course for its employees, Morgan said.    

Beck’s pulled groups of employees together from their farms in 12 locations and called ISU to schedule course sessions from them. Each class had about 25 employees. Now that Beck’s core employees have gone through the program, ISU is opening the course to other companies, Morgan said.

Scouting storm damage

Steve Gauck, a field agronomist and crop adviser at Beck's, was the first employee to start experimenting with the use of drones in 2014. Gauck started using drones to scout fields after floods and hailstorms. The drones made it easier for him to identify damaged areas and act quickly, Gauck said.  

Gauck has been working at Beck’s for 14 years and is what he calls "the crop doctor." He looks at the symptoms of crops and he figures out what’s wrong with them and how to bring them back to health. He developed an interest in drones after flying with friends over fields and seeing the advantage a bird’s-eye view could give Beck's in its fields.     

People have always wanted the aerial vantage point, but it was cost prohibitive, said Love. Farmers would stand on the rooftops of their houses or the hoods of their cars to get an aerial view of their land, he said. Some farmers would go to the airport and rent an airplane and pilot to fly over their fields.  

Beck’s decided to pursue drone use further when they saw that they could use drones for data collection and to make 3D imagery maps of their fields.   

“Data is really where the money is at,” Morgan said.  

When the FAA's part 107 ruling went into effect and drone operators were no longer required to have a pilot's license, Beck’s started “moving full force” to have its employees become certified drone operators, Gauck said.   

Gauck was one of Beck's first employees to go through the ISU course late last summer. Two days after he attended the course he took the FAA exam and passed.     

The two-day course costs $125 per employee. During the program, employees don't get to operate drones. Beck's trains its own employees on how to fly drones. Even though most of Beck's employees didn’t have flying experience, Beck's trained them because it is easier to teach an employee who is knowledgeable of agriculture how to fly a drone than it is to teach someone who knows how to fly a drone many years of experience in agriculture, Love said. Drones are easy to fly, he said because most their functions are automated.

In the future

Beck's wants to use drones for research, to produce higher-quality seed and to help its customers by surveying their crop fields.   

"That serving customers segment of the market is going to explode for us," Love said. More of Beck's customers want to take advantage of the capabilities of drones now that it isn't so costly to do. The once-required pilot license for commercial drone use would have cost them tens of thousands of dollars.  

The biggest challenge of using drones for Beck's is the data collection management. Drones collect more than they know what to do with. They don't know what data to throw away, what data to keep and how to compile it, Love said.   

In the future, Beck's hopes to be able to use the data it collects to estimate yield potential, Gauck said.   

“The opportunities seems pretty endless,” he said. “That’s really what has driven us to move forward finding opportunities that we can do with them today and in the future."  

April 15, 2017 - 8:37am