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Crop-dusting drones swoop in to find place in traditional aerial applications

By Steve Lombard

For more than a century, low-flying pilots or crop dusters, as they were famously dubbed, have swooped over the nation’s farmlands and rangelands applying herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers.

Over time, both the skills of pilots and the planes they fly have advanced. The term “crop duster” has also evolved, taking on other, more formal monikers such as aerial applicators or agricultural pilots. In today’s ever-changing world, countless technological advancements that touch or impact almost every facet of life continue to move forward as well.

But technology is not always a one-size-fits-all solution.

In the skies just slightly above the more than 130 million acres of U.S. farmlands and rangelands, large-scale drones are slowly starting to make a buzz in the agricultural arena.

It’s where this delicate mix of new and old ways of doing things meet that Brenden Hubele, 23, of Weiser, Idaho, has climbed aboard.

A member of the Idaho Air National Guard, Hubele recently drafted a new career flight plan, one that utilizes drones to spray fields.

Earlier this year, he began operating Hubele Agridrone, a Weiser-based spraying service. Serving as his wingman is his father, Michael, a veteran aviator who first learned to fly helicopters at the Silverhawk Aviation Academy in Caldwell.

However, the younger Hubele said he knows there could be some delays pushing drones to the front of the departure line in this specialized field.

Crop-dusting drones, above, middle and lower left, owned by Hubele Agridrone, are tested at a location in Weiser. (PHOTO: courtesy of Brenden Hubele)

“In this industry, it just takes longer to convince someone who has been using one method of application,” he said. “But as more people keep talking, I believe the business will keep growing.”

After an unsatisfying year studying computer science at Boise State University, Hubele felt the time to spread his wings had arrived.

His father, who once piloted helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon and used his piloting skills to shoot aerial photography of BSU football games and high-end area homes situated throughout the Treasure Valley, helped direct his course.

“He was finding that college was not for him, same as me,” Michael Hubele said of his son. “I told him there are lots of other things you can do and that aviation has been in the family.”

With a push from his dad, and a subsequent discovery flight aboard a Cessna, the younger Hubele became “super-hooked” on the idea of working as an aerial applicator.

But his dream descended quickly when he realized the cost of owning a fixed-wing plane, most with a price tag in the ballpark of seven figures or more on the lower end, was unrealistic.

With a pilot’s license and two years as a flight instructor at Silverhawk under his belt, Hubele adjusted his career itinerary and began researching how to parlay his aviator experience into flying drones for profit.

To get his new operation off the ground, he drafted a business plan, secured a small business loan from Zion’s Bank, and purchased two Agras T40 drones at a cost of about $30,000 apiece.

Fully loaded with a battery and a 10.5-gallon tank filled to capacity, each machine, with a 10-foot span from propeller to propeller, weighs about 200 pounds.

With his father by his side, Hubele Agridrone is slowly elevating to new heights.

“Right now, the issue is getting customers, but that will come with time,” he said. “But I know the more work I have this season, the more I will have next season as the word-of-mouth about what I am doing spreads.”

The senior Hubele is fully onboard with his son’s new approach to the world of aviation.

“He did the business plan, bought the drones, negotiated the deals,” Michael Hubele said. “I’m just helping out and being supportive.”

According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), more than 3,400 ag pilots nationwide take to the skies annually to help eliminate pesky weeds and bugs plaguing farms and open ranges.

George Parker of Crop Jet Aviation flies his plane low over a client’s crop to release an aerial application. (PHOTO: courtesy of George Parker)

But not all who work airborne share the same view, such as veteran pilot George Parker, who completed his first solo flight at age 16.

As the owner of Crop Jet Aviation in Gooding, Idaho, and with more than 27 years of experience buzzing fields, he said it’s best not to get “too far ahead” when considering drones as replacements for fixed-wing aircraft.

“It’s a very important distinction to recognize the job we are performing in today’s production agricultural world with airplanes, and to then recognize where the drones or technology is currently,” Parker said.

With a fleet of five planes, Parker’s outfit operates in seven locations statewide. Three of his craft can transport 800 gallons of spray, with the other two each fitted with 500-gallon tanks.

“You can’t move the volume that we do with a drone,” he said. “That is what most people don’t recognize. We are a repetitious movement of a large quantity of volume. The drone doesn’t technically do what we do yet.”

By comparison, a drone with a 10-gallon capacity tank would need to fly 62.5 loads to dispense 625 gallons of spray, while one single plane, Parker said, can cover a 120-acre circle in roughly 30 minutes.

“Using a drone with a 10-gallon capacity, you’re not going to get it done,” he said. “You might get a third or even half of it completed.”

Last year alone, Parker and his pilots logged more than a quarter-million acres sprayed statewide.

Referring to himself as a “professional applicator who just happens to fly a plane,” Parker holds tight to a mission focused on what he calls an “American capitalistic and fiscally solvent business,” one that impacts both the farmer and the sprayer.

Another key industry factor is mother nature, or as Parker calls it, “a finite set of windows,” such as Idaho’s fickle springtime temperatures that can easily fluctuate between 40 and 80 degrees statewide.

“In today’s world, everything in agriculture is extremely scientific and specific,” he said. “And there are certain applications you can lose if not done within a certain timeframe or window.”

One local, fifth-generation farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he prefers the use of ground applicators to treat his crops.

His biggest concern: Whether a drone can pack enough chemicals and enough water to produce enough volume to get the spray to contact the plants as effectively as a ground applicator can.

“My experience tells me a drone is more sensitive to breeze, and if your calculations are off with ground speed, cross breeze, ground height, those are a lot of factors than can impact whether you are getting the right amount of spray needed in the places that it needs to be,” he said.

Wind, or chemical drift, is the biggest factor impacting crop spraying efficiency, and both drone operators and pilots are bound by the same regulations.

“We can’t fly if the wind is more than 10 miles per hour,” Hubele said. “It’s too difficult for a drone to stay on its path and wind greatly increases the likelihood of pesticide drift. Even below 10 miles per hour, you must constantly monitor the spray and put a buffer on the side of the field where the wind is blowing.”

Despite such precautions, the question of how to convince farmers on the effectiveness of using drones rather than planes lingers in the air. For those who have long relied on planes, or even ground-application methods, a drone may or may not be the better option.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would say it all comes down to the personal opinion of each farmer,” the unnamed rancher said.

In fairness, however, he was quick to point out some “definite advantages” of using unmanned flying machines.

Michael, left, and Brenden Hubele stand with one of their drones that provide aerial applications for agricultural clients around the state.

“You can spray when a field is wetter or when water is running in a field, which means there are no tracks being made in the dirt,” he said. “That is an upside.”

As licensed drone operators, Hubele and his father are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and both hold certification as pesticide applicators. As the veteran aviator in the family, Hubele’s dad said he also leans to “preference and perspective.”

“I think drones are more precise because you are closer to the field, and it’s all GPS mapped,” he said. “It corrects for wind speed and direction and keeps it on track. And like a plane, we can increase droplet size and make it bigger for a smaller mist to hit the field better.”

However, unlike a plane, and with a total of three batteries available to power each unit, the drones require a process known as “hot swapping,” a routine of switching out batteries once a flight returns.

Averaging about seven minutes of flight time with a full payload, recharging each drone’s battery with 30% usage or less remaining takes about nine minutes.

Despite the limited power issues, one big advantage most seem to agree on is that a drone can be flown with more mobility into tight or hard to reach places.

“In wooded areas we can get into spots where airplanes can’t, or where ground rigs are limited by the rocky terrain,” Hubele’s father said.

Still, for some farmers and aviators, the technological push to elevate drones to first-class status in the aerial spraying world has not yet taken off.

“I think they’re great, they’re definitely needed,” Parker said. “There are places where we can utilize those vehicles to apply crop protection products and fertilizers. And I think that is where they are going to find their niche market.”

But with more than 16,000 hours of navigating a plane well below power lines, Parker said he’s not ready to hang up his wings just yet.

“I’m not anti-drone. But what I am is pro-fiscally solvent,” he said. “These young guys with their drones, it’s truly entrepreneurial what they’re doing. They’re eager and trying to make a living.”

But for the lifelong aviator, it’s still not time to adjust course.

“When we finally reach a point where the planes we now fly can do so without a person in it, I will definitely have five of them,” Parker said.

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