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Published July 01, 2013, 10:51 AM

The drone project

The Autonomous Tractor Co., in addition to its driverless tractor is developing agricultural drones, flying machines that scout fields and spray crops for pests.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

ST. MICHAEL, Minn. — Also in the autonomous research center of the Autonomous Tractor Co., Terry M. Anderson and friends are working on agricultural drones.

A computer-generated diagram shows a semi-truck trailer, equipped with three of the disk-like drones. The small one — dubbed “Little Bird” — will hover lower than 100 feet off the ground, monitoring the field for potential weed or insect problems.

The larger “Big Bird” drones can be loaded with chemical, launched separately and each can spray up to 129 acres, he says. They’ll be targeted on specific weed problems and not simply spraying the entire fields. They’ll return to the trailer to “automatically refill itself,” says Pat O’Malley, a former American Airlines pilot.

Anderson invites a news reporter into an upper room where a “turbofan propeller” stands in a kind of cylinder. When the motor kicks in, it pulls against chains, bolted to the floor. He says this propeller model can lift about 69 pounds, so eight of them would handle about 648 pounds.

“We’re seeing in Europe and Australia, they’re putting severe limitations on spray,” Anderson says. One of the primary problems is that the sprays are causing honeybees to mutate and die off. “If we don’t have any bees, it’s going to have an impact on ag,” he says.

He says some of the spraying will be done at night, when the bees are asleep.