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The drone project

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

Terry Anderson talks about an artist's conception of an agricultural "drone"
Terry Anderson talks about an artist's conception of an agricultural "drone" setup, being developed by the same people as Autonomous Tractor Co. of Fargo, N.D. The concept is a trio of a small "Little Bird" drone to find the problems in a field, and the two "Big Bird" drones to carry spray. In this futuristic concept, the spray drones being developed at St. Michael, Minn., would only go to areas where the crop pest problems exist. Photo taken June 24, 2013. (Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

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.

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

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