Volitant Technologies of Nebraska sells drones to spray and seed ‘full-field’
Commercial farmers in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota start using drones for spraying, seeding.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For years, farmers could only imagine a day when they could use their own drone to “fly-on” farm chemicals or seed in “full-field” application.
That day has come.
Kevin Knorr of Dunbar, Nebraska, just west of Nebraska City, is a co-owner of Volitant Drone Technology Solutions LLC (also known as Volitant Technologies). Knorr told Agweek that in the past 18 months his company has sold “hundreds” of large-payload drones to farmers in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and beyond. Volitant had a booth at the recent Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Farm Show.
Volitant formed on April 15, 2020, and is now both a custom applicator and a dealer for drones. The company sells new, high-capacity drones from Chinese manufacturer DJI, a company that dominates world and U.S. drone sales and at times has raised concerns about national security and government backing.
The large-capacity ag drones cost $25,000 to $31,000 — “ready to fly,” as Knorr puts it.
They lift as many as 10.5 gallons, with a total “take-off weight” of 212 pounds, including the drone and battery. The agricultural drones can spray 5 acres before returning for a refill. The wingspan is more than 10 feet, and the drone can spray an effective swath at least 30 feet wide.
Of course they're “fully autonomous,” Knorr said. Plug in the field boundaries, and the drone will calculate the most efficient spray pattern, automatically. Put in some field “obstacles,” and the machine will automatically avoid them.
Life of technology
Knorr, 60, is a veteran of technology, military and the government.
Born in Pierre, South Dakota, he was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. Knorr served in the U.S. Marines from 1981 to 1985, where he was responsible for air conditioning for the radio units that ran a missile battalion in the Third Marine Division. He also took two years of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
After the Marines, Knorr worked 32 years for the Nebraska State Patrol, initially its Investigative Services Division.
“I spent a lot of time working with surveillance systems,” he said. He became a captain and served as an administrator of the patrol’s intelligence division, with special knowledge of databases.
Knorr retired in 2017, but looked around for something new.
“I knew whatever I did afterwards had to have technology in it," he said.
In 2019, Knorr and a former associate who retired from state GIS work, started brainstorming about what tech-related business they might form. They decided they could form a custom ag applications business, using drones.
In April 2020, the two established Volitant Drone Technologies. They purchased what are now medium-capacity drones — testing, primarily, on Knorr’s small farm.
They spent the next year getting their Federal Aviation Administration’s Agricultural Aircraft Operator Certificate, referred to as “Part 137” certification. By the end of 2021 they did some custom spray work and tested the equipment for spreading cover crop seed.
While pursuing the application certification, they also realized there were no DJI distributors in their immediate area.
A big opportunity
“We reached out to DJI, and they accepted us,” as a dealer, Knorr said. “We felt there was a huge pocket that was open.”
Two years later, Volitant is one of a dozen DJI dealers in the whole United States. The company has three full- and seven part-time staff. It is one of only a handful of companies in the Upper Midwest that is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for drone aerial applications.
Volitant’s custom service is working all over the state of Nebraska, South Dakota … even as far away as Tennessee. “All over the United States as well,” Knorr said. The FAA certificate covers the entire U.S. but each state has a department of agriculture that has its own requirements for commercial applicators.
The FAA approves custom application drones in two categories — under 55 pounds and over 55 pounds.
“We really felt like our certificate needed to include the over 55 pound class,” Knorr said. “There is no class above it. We really felt like the drones were going to grow, and we wanted to grow with them.”
Volitant’s first DJI drones were the MG-1P, which had a 2.5 gallon payload/ which is nearly 21 pounds. That works for spot spraying.
“The first time we sprayed, we were spraying (insecticide to control) weevils on alfalfa,” Knorr said. “It was a 9- or 10-acre patch, in the spring before the first harvest.”
Volitant’s distributorship took off when DJI’s T16 model came out. This one carried up to a 55-pound payload — a total take-off weight of 92 pounds. On medium-sized drones, operators would “hot-swap” tanks of liquid to decrease time on the ground. When the models got larger, and tanks got over 5 gallons, it became too heavy to manhandle.
Now, the larger T40 model can be set up to do a “run” that is three-fourths of a mile long run, at 4 minutes each, for a total of 8 minutes. The speed is 32 feet per second ground speed, which roughly 21.8 miles per hour.
“Three quarters of a mile out, and back. It’ll be empty or close-to it,” Knorr said. “You change the battery, fill the tank and send it right back out. You’re on the ground for 60 seconds to a minute and a half and you’re back out, flying and spraying again.”
When the plane lands the battery usually carries a 30% to 40% charge. he said. “You change the battery, refill, and the drone is back out.”
The newest, high-capacity spray tanks today are large enough that they must be refilled, not switched out.
“You have to have equipment available to pump your product and do it fairly quickly,” Knorr said. “We recommend a high-volume, low-pressure pump. You don't make a mess in the field; you get the volume of product into the tank quickly and not create a mess for yourself or the field that you’re working in.”
They also come with a “dry-box spreader” for seed and dry fertilizer.
DJI offers two options for recharging batteries. The company recently came out with a generator designed to charge DJI batteries.
“Literally, it’s a three-phase, 12,000-watt (gas-powered) generator,” he said. “It has a lot of power.”
It also has a lot of sound.
“If there’s one environmental thing I would have to recognize, as an applicator, is that — by the end of the day — you’re ready to turn it off,” Knorr admitted.
A second option is a “charger” that hooks up to two batteries.
“The charger minds the batteries. It knows which one to start charging first,” Knorr said. “It starts charging the one that has the most charge in it. It gets you back in the air quickest. As soon as it’s done with that one it switches over to the next one. It’s a great option, in my opinion, for a guy who already has a generator they can hook to.”
The batteries are 52-volts. The T-30 batteries are 29,000 milliamperes (mA, also “milliamps” — the measure of electric current flowing through an electrical conductor). The T-40 drone has 30,000 mA, adding power for a drone that must power eight motors.
In the past year, DJI launched a new battery that is provided with venting between the “load cell” and the “control head” on top. The cooling station blows air to cool the battery down as it is charging, to make it charge more efficiently. Batteries are warrantied for 1,500 charge cycles or one year.
“We’ve never had to replace a battery,” Knorr said.
He added the aircraft itself is warrantied for a year. The warranty doesn’t cover damage caused by pilot error.
No ‘typical’ buyer
Knorr said buyers range from the young commercial applicator trying to start their own business to the individual producer who is maybe trying to supplement the work being done by the fixed-wing and helicopter applicators who have been part of the traditional way of aerial application.
Most of the customers have a strong background in agriculture.
“They already know how to mix and spray chemicals because they’re doing it on their own farm,” he said.
Farmers at the show seemed impressed with the new capabilities.
“The moon’s the limit. I never knew they were quite this big, or could do quite this much. Apparently you could send your kids out to spray with the drones,” said farmer Jamie Voneye, 42, who farms with his family near Colman, South Dakota, and was just learning about the system. Jamie has five sons and one daughter, ranging from ages 2 years old to 19. “I came up thinking they would use them for spot-spraying and what have you. He said you could do a whole quarter in 4 hours — whether fungicide or micronutrients in late-season — 2 gallons or 2.5 gallons to the acre.”
Jamie’s son, Ian, 12, and his brother, Dylan, 10, attended the show with their dad. “I know a little about drones, they can do all sorts of things. They’re pretty cool,” Ian said.
Nearby, John Dieball, 48, a farmer and custom baler from Henderson, Minnesota, said he owns one of the DJI T-20 machines and used it in 2022 for spraying 150 acre plots. He’s used the machine to apply fungicide and to apply cover-crop seeding. Dieball also does custom baling.
“Bigger machines to get more acres done in a day,” he said. “It’s the wave of the future because it’s autonomous — less help out there, that’s what we’re going to be looking for. This is an area that’s growing and it ain’t stopping.”
About a half-dozen distributors operate in the upper Midwest, Knorr said.
DJI has sold “thousands” of DJI drones in the United States. DJI Technology Co. Ltd. uses the trade name DJI, which derives from the words Da-Jiang Innovations, or literally "Great Frontier Innovations.” It is headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. The company was founded in 2006 by aerospace engineer and businessman Frank Wang.
DJI holds more than 77% of the U.S. market share for drones, with no other company holding more than 4%, according to Bloomberg. A Feb. 1, 2022, story in the the Washington Post said DJI has received investment from Shanghai Venture Capital Co., SDIC Unity Capital, owned by the Chinese State Investment Corp., and China Chengtong Holding Group, owned by another state-owned company, Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council.
There have been questions of security. In January 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior grounded 800 drones for studying wildlife conservation and infrastructure, according to a Jan. 1, 2020, story in the New York Times. In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order removing Chinese-made drones from U.S. government fleets. On Oct. 5, 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense put DJI on a list of “Chinese military companies” operating in the United States.
Knorr acknowledged that he answers farmer questions about the Chinese ownership, but offered this perspective:
“Here in the U.S. we have to change a lot about the way we live if we want our products manufactured and engineered in the U.S.,” Knorr said. “It would really mean paying a lot more for those same products. The phone we use every day is probably collecting way more information on us than any drone would.”
And he added: “This is coming from a former law enforcement officer who was in the intelligence division. Our U.S.-based companies are collecting as much if not more.”
Compared to what?
In the field, the drones fly at 8-12 feet off the top of the crop canopy. That varies, depending on the crop, and factors including terrain and wind. DJI promotes that the T40 model has a spray pattern 36 feet wide. The loaded drones travel at a ground speed of about 21 miles per hour.
Based on their own spray tests on water-sensitive paper, Volitant recommends a 30-foot wide pattern. Nozzles are 5 feet apart. They employ a centrifugal nozzle, and a “rotor wash” moves the product down into the crop canopy on all growing surfaces of the plant.
Knorr said the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is doing some research to compare the energy efficiency of drones compared to traditional ground-spraying — “expending diesel.” The most recent articles on the topic have come out of Auburn University in Alabama.
“There are quite a few areas where, I believe, academically we could spend a little time,” he said.
Bigger or better?
“Everyone that comes in wants to see ‘When’s the next bigger one coming out?’" Knorr said of the show-goers. “I honestly don’t think it’s about when the bigger drone comes out. I do think in the next few years that we’ll see more ancillary equipment that will support drones."
He expects developments in mixing tanks, generators and trailers. Probably dry seed box loading updates.
“More importantly, I think we need to start to consider is how a drone was intended to be used,” he said. Farm equipment is going to get smaller and more automated, he said. “You’re going to push multiple pieces of equipment out to do the same thing we were doing before. You’re going toward less compaction, redundancy of equipment.”
Knorr thinks the size will level off. He thinks drones will not replace spray pilots who can cover 3,000 acres a day. A T-40 drone is about 300 to 400 acres a day, he said. For now, farmers are using this kind of drone for specialty applications, where compaction or versatility are at a premium. One hope is that precision will allow pest control with fewer chemicals.
“I do think we are in a bit of a revolution when it comes to where the drone community is going to go,” Knorr said.
Looking ahead, Knorr thinks the FAA 137 license should be adjusted for drones, as it was designed to regulate manned, fixed-wing and helicopter aerial.
“We have to have (certification) exemptions to say that we don’t have a helmet or a three-point harness, the ability to jettison our load,” he said, noting those don’t make sense for drones. “I think there’s some research that needs to be done to help evolve that regulation to be more consistent.”
Also, chemical companies have labels specific for aerial applications, but they are geared toward the planes and helicopters. “I’d like to see chemical companies start to do research that would be more drone-specific.”