Poised for Flight

Iowa startup hopes to provide efficiencies and options with amped-up drone sprayers.

Rantizo cofounder Michael Ott hopes to use swarm technology to grow efficiency. (Progressive Farmer image by Joel Reichenberger)

The world headquarters of Rantizo screams tech startup. The small company that's pushing the edge on autonomous drone spraying systems feels out of place in downtown Iowa City, wedged between a flower shop and a store hawking University of Iowa T-shirts. There's an open-office concept and a workroom cluttered with disassembled drones, and to actually test anything out, engineers must crawl out a second-story window onto a roof.

It's not quite Steve Jobs' childhood garage, but company cofounder Michael Ott is hoping it could be a launching pad for a major change in how farms operate. Late last summer, Rantizo became the first company to begin commercial drone spraying, gaining licenses in Iowa and Wisconsin to spray and spread herbicide, fungicide, insecticide and even cover crop seed.

It was soon certified in Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, as well. This fall, the company added Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Dakota to the mix, making 10 states. Three more are on the horizon: Arizona, California and Oregon.

Rantizo started last summer shipping its drone spraying equipment to providers around the country.

"Everyone who has a drone already was as busy as they could handle," Ott says. "We're having a hard time keeping units in stock."

DRONES SPINNING UP

Proponents of drone spraying see the technology as an answer to some of the most pressing issues facing agriculture today.

Rantizo's plan is to sell its equipment to service providers around the country, then have sprayer drone operators partner with crop consultants to tackle problems in a field in a very targeted, efficient way.

What should a farmer do if one drone imaging flight sees weeds growing along the west property line and in one patch in the middle of the field? Dispatch the Rantizo drone to spray those spots rather than driving through the field with a full sprayer rig while treating the entire field.

If it all works according to plan, a farmer could save diesel and prevent soil compaction while using a fraction of the chemical. Other precision sprayer applications claim to reduce herbicide usage by as much as 90%, though Ott says Rantizo's own numbers are still a work in progress.

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It could all add up to something big.

"There could be economic savings," says John Nowatzki, an agricultural machines specialist at North Dakota State University.

Nowatzki has been experimenting with a variety of drone uses with his classes and is also working on precision weed-management equipment.

He's not ready to endorse spraying drones as a long-term replacement to big spraying rigs, but he does see plenty of potential.

"You could use them to get to areas where you can't spray with other aerial applicators because they're too close to a town or buildings," he says.

In response to that scenario, Ott eagerly shows off a photo of a tractor and sprayer rig stuck in a muddy field to remind us that drones don't get stuck.

Nowatzki's team has worked on applying insecticide to cattle in the fly-heavy summer months. Cattle tend to run from a drone on the first pass and shuffle out of the way on the next few, he says, but they eventually calm down.

Drones could also be used off-farm for precision treatment against mosquitoes in urban areas.

"There are some applications where it really makes sense," Nowatzki says.

SWING FOR A SWARM

At Rantizo (Greek for "to sprinkle"), the efforts to get to market with a sprayer have grown quickly.

The company, which was founded in 2018, started with the capability to spray 1 acre an hour. It expanded that to 3 then 5.

That's what its equipment, the DJI Agras, does out of the box, Ott says. His team has improved upon that, however, modifying both hardware and software. Now, equipped with wide booms that stretch a total of 14 feet, it's up to 14 acres an hour. Rantizo's engineers don't think they've maxed out their potential yet, either.

"We hope with some additions, we'll be at 20 acres an hour," Ott says.

There are other gains to be made in efficiency, as well. The drones already run and spray autonomously, following a flight plan built to identify problem spots in the field. Someone must be at the controls, but if everything goes according to plan, they're observing.

A major hurdle engineers have been working to clear is autonomous refilling, having the machine set down just so on a tank, connect, charge its batteries, operate a pump to refill and take back off.

The limiting factor is weight. FAA regulations dictate a drone that crosses over 55 pounds including payload needs a licensed pilot at the controls. Hiring licensed airplane pilots would throw the balance sheet out of whack, so the company's drones right now weigh in at 54.8 pounds.

That doesn't mean 20 acres per hour is the max the company hopes to spray, however. If they can't make their drones any larger, they hope they can increase their efficiency with more drones.

"We'll be able to swarm with multiple units, and we'll increase everything by a multiple of three or five, and do 60 or 100 acres per hour," Ott says. "Then we'll be competitive with ground rigs. It's just a part of the progress."

That's in the future, but not too far. The company is hoping to trial a swarm of three drones working together spraying this spring. For now, however, Rantizo's offerings have already caught plenty of interest from farmers looking for a step up in efficiency.

"When people see it, they say it makes sense and 'I want that.' People keep calling," Ott says. "My phone rang three times in the last 15 minutes. We can't keep up."


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