Livengood ventures into aerial crop scouting

Friday, May 23, 2014
Shawn Livengood prepares to make connections to his laptop to put in the flight plan for a test flight on Friday, May 9. (Kelly Melies/Missouri Farms)

Technology. It surrounds us today so abundantly. From the first computer the size of a large room to something you can slip in your pocket today, technology has made leaps and bounds. That technology has made its way into agriculture. Shawn and Chris Livengood, along with their father, Bruce, have ventured into the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a crop scouting business.

"Dad had seen a presentation at a meeting he went to from the company that does this, so it sparked his interest," Shawn said.

"We're technology guys. We like to keep on the latest trends," Chris said. "It kind of seems like it would be the next big thing."

They have just started their business so they're still in the process of getting acquainted with the program.

"We've been flying it for a few weeks now," Shawn said. "We're still kind of getting our feet wet. But I would say eventually our target customer would be a farmer who likes innovation, who is always looking to try the next new thing out there."

The company is called WingScan and is based in Minnesota. By using UAVs, farmers can receive valuable information which takes a lot of the guess work out of crop inspection. Innovative software known as "farm intelligence" has paved the way for this to happen.

A standard camera and infrared camera are attached to a small plane, which is maybe similar to a remote-controlled model airplane. And essentially that's what it is. The plane runs on a flight path which is programmed in by a computer equipped with the software. Each camera takes about 1,000 photos. They put together the raw photos and send those to the company where it is analyzed. Once the company receives the photos, it takes about two days to receive the compiled, analyzed data, they said.

The UAV has made its path and now lands on the ground Friday, May 9. (Kelly Melies/Missouri Farms)

The innovative technology from WingScan helps farmers make better decisions. Farming is a big investment and can be an expensive business. Many factors can determine the outcome of your crops.

Shawn said this is the first company they have seen that has a plan and a process in place to use the information they get from the UAV. They provide the plane and the software.

"We found that they have a program all of your information goes to. Every picture is analyzed and they can look for specific things at different growth stages in your plant and be able to analyze if it needs nitrogen or if it has a weak stem," Chris said. "The data which is sent back can be used to better manage your field. For our own operation, we're really excited about being able to use what we're going to be able to get from it."

"From what they're saying, every weed, every plant gives off an optical signature. So it would be able to pick up a lot of problem weeds, like waterhemp," Shawn said. "You should be able to make a variable rate application map from the information they give you."

Chris said a nitrogen sensor should be available July 1 for corn. Additionally, they're supposed to have a sensor available this season to be able to fly in the field ahead of time. This should help decide where the field needs fertilizer and it should indicate how much you're going to have to put on before you even get out to the field."

If there's something you want to be able to scout for, I think, given enough time, they'll make a program to scout for it," he said.

For now, they continue to learn the program and work out any kinks. Everything is run from a laptop and Shawn seems to be the pilot of the two brothers.

"We use our field boundaries and import them into the program. Then you load a flight plan. Once we throw it, it will automatically start flying according to the flight plan," Shawn said.

There are checks and a process to go through to prepare the UAV for flight.

"We have to go through a pre-flight check," he said. "The altitude of the plane depends on the stage of growth your crop is in."

Wind direction is also important in programming and which direction it's going to take off.

"You want some wind. For taking off and landing, it makes it easier. They say it can fly in up to 30 mph wind. . . . But I'd say about 20 mph is good," Shawn said.

"If there's no wind, it will go 33 mph. So when it's going into the wind you just subtract whatever the wind is off of how fast it's going," Chris said. "If it's going with the wind, it will pick up and go 50 mph."

The plane flew according to the flight plan. There were times when it was difficult to see.

"On a clear day like this, once it's up there, it's really hard to see. You can see on the screen here the tracking position," Shawn said. "See a lot of birds that you think are the plane. They kind of look the same."

The program also allows for any unforeseen circumstances. So, if for any reason the plane needs to land suddenly or move off of its path, they can do so from the laptop with a few commands.

"You can tell it, if something's wrong, to land right where it's at," Chris said.

"You can program it to go somewhere else by clicking on another part of the map," Shawn said.

When it completes its path, it comes in for a landing, which sometimes is not an easy one.

"When it lands, it's a controlled crash. It comes in slow and then belly flops. It doesn't have any landing gear," Chris said.

They are both excited about this opportunity and hope this business takes off.

"We're hoping this will turn into a pretty big business," Shawn said.

His brother said he hopes this business will grow and the need will exist to "have another plane."

As with any new business, there are positives and negatives.

"A negative (about the UAV) is not a whole lot is known about it. And we're still learning how to do it. At the same time, if we can be some of the first ones to learn it, we could have a step up," Shawn said.

"I think if a person is interested in it at all, to try a few acres. It's pretty interesting just to learn about how it all works," Chris said.

"If a farmer would just do a field to see what they could get out of it, see if they could save some money by using it," Shawn said. "We have our own account with the company. Every customer we have would have their own username and login and be able to access their account and pull up their field."

Besides starting this business, they also farm.

Chris said, "We have corn and soybeans. We got all the corn done around April 24. We farm about 2,200 acres."

Shawn and Chris have a sister who is a nurse and have lived in this area their whole lives.

"Dad has lived here since '79 or '80," Chris said.

He said his grandparents were the original owners of the farm.

Between farming and scouting, they stay busy. They hope others can see the benefits of aerial scouting to better manage their own operations.

For more information, contact Shawn at 660-631-3899 or Chris at 660-641-0420.