Colorado company working to bring new aircraft technologies to ag quicker
April 5, 2014
A northern Colorado company is ready to start distributing an optionally piloted aircraft they developed to more quickly meet the needs of those interested in using drones — among whom are many members of the agriculture industry.
Steen Mogensen, CEO of Scion UAS, LLC, based at the Loveland-Fort Collins Airport, said it's only a matter of time before we see federal regulations on how unmanned aircrafts can operate in national airspace.
"There's no doubt this is coming," he said. "It's a matter of how do we implement (unmanned aircraft) into the airspace safely. Right now there are no rules for how you operate unmanned aircraft in federal airspace."
To speed up the testing and demonstration processes, Mogensen and his colleagues have been working for several years on an aircraft that would be legal to test now, but will also have the same capabilities as an unmanned craft.
Their solution: the SA-400 Jackal, a vehicle nearly 20 feet in length designed to carry up to 100 pounds of payload with or without a pilot on board.
Because it can be manually piloted and thus fits current airspace requirements, the company last July earned the Federal Aviation Administration's nod to test the product for research purposes.
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Mogensen said his company is still waiting to see what the FAA's requirements will be for unmanned aircraft, but they're ready to start taking orders for the aircraft.
With all rules in place, he said it would typically take about five months to build the aircraft.
"We're ready to go," he said. "We're ready to accept orders as soon as the FAA defines the rules so we know what to comply with."
Mogensen said the drone industry has grown from a hobby into something much bigger, with companies like Lockheed and Boeing developing their own unmanned crafts.
Mogensen said their optionally manned aircraft falls somewhere in between, with the capabilities of smaller drones at a reasonable price, but at the same quality level as the bigger companies.
"We wanted to make sure we we're in a unique position," he said. "If you look at what's becoming available, a lot of it's being driven by the hobby-level guys. There's little on the market if you look at the larger vehicles.
Mogensen said he and his colleagues had agriculture in mind when developing the larger vehicle.
He said the aircraft can be used to monitor crops from above and will also be able to carry enough weight to do crop dusting — perhaps even at night when winds are calmer.
"(Agriculture) was one of the reasons for going big," he said.
Weld County farmers say they're interested in using drone capabilities, especially those that would allow them to have a bird's-eye-view of their crops.
Mark Arnusch, who sits on the board of the Colorado Farm Bureau and farms near Keenesburg in southeast Weld County, said he's looking in to using drones in his own operation, and he knows other are looking into the many possible uses, including crop surveillance that could help detect disease and other crop issues early on.
"I think we've only scratched the surface in terms of what these uses could be and what value that technology could deliver," Arnusch said.
Still, Arnusch said the industry is in a fluid state, and many farmers want more information before making any investment.
Dave Eckhardt, president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association who farms near LaSalle, said he and others are eager to learn more about how drones will be regulated and how they may practically used on the farm.
"There are so many unanswered questions, both privacy wise and how it's going to actually work, logistics," Eckhardt said. "Those will be an important beginning to the whole discussion."
Mogensen said the price tag for the aircraft is in line with other farm equipment — in the half-million-dollar range — but he envisions cooperatives and businesses buying them for use on more than one farm.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the optionally manned aircraft, Mogensen said, is the potential for it to be used in rescue situations. He said it's possible to send the craft to a remote location to find a lost or trapped person, and it could bring that person back to safety without risking any other lives.
"It's every boy's dream to be able to work on aircrafts like this," he said. "We get the chance to build things that might save lives in the future and might make life better for people in the future."
Mogensen said once federal regulations are in place, he sees no bounds to how unmanned aircrafts will be used.
"We're a little like computers were in the early '80s," he said. "Today you can't imagine living without your PC.
"We believe unmanned aircraft are going to be the same, with time. We're going to find so many uses to keep people out of harm's way." ❖