Drones, Trains and Automobiles! 

May 16, 2023

Sara Clausen
Director of Communications

REMEMBER PLANES, TRAINS and Automobiles? The 1987 comedy stars John Candy and Steve Martin as two travelers who are stuck without plane rides home and unexpectedly become companions. The movie documents nearly every form of transportation as the two men try to get back home for Thanksgiving. Would they have ever thought that one day there would be drones in our skies? 

Unlike airplanes, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not used to transport people. Instead, they gather information or give an aerial perspective. The earliest recorded use of a UAV was in 1849 for warfighting. In 2015, recreational drones flooded the market and have since scientifically advanced many industries, including the ag industry. 

"There is a segment of growers asking specifically for drone technology," said Key Cooperative COO & Agronomy Division Manager Brent Deppe. "And with the ever-changing landscape, we need a partner who can deliver this technology to our member-owners and customers." 

Enter SV Aerial & Consulting. This spring and summer, SV will be a contract applicator, conducting aerial drone spraying across the entire Key territory. This service will be coordinated through Key Agronomists. “We have a great relationship with SV Aerial & Consulting,” said Brent. “Their go-to-market strategy is much like ours: using the latest and greatest technology, focusing on customers and constantly evolving."

SV is made up of a dynamic duo out of Grinnell with lifelong connections to agriculture and Iowa. Eric Van Zee and Chris Starrett met in 2005 at the Iowa State Patrol Academy. Flash forward to March 2020, when the company was born out of Eric’s experience at his farm operation in Jasper County and Chris’s aviation training and experience as a certified flight instructor. 

Professional drone usage is now regulated by the FAA. In fact, at this time, the FAA does not actually separate drone flying from true airplane flying. So for several years, SV has worked toward completing all the regulatory requirements to certify their drone service with the FAA. “We strive to provide a professional, legal service that meets all the industry standards,” said Eric. “We want our farmers to know they’re being provided the best service.” “This type of partnership is the best-case scenario for both Key Cooperative and SV,” added Chris. “Key provides the recommendations and the product, then we apply it. Truly a win-win for both of us."

Why choose aerial drone spraying? Drones can apply consistent levels right above the crop because they follow the topography of the field. A drone also forces the spray down, so the product can reach the bottom leaves of the plant. An airplane, on the other hand, must dive down, which means all the acres may not get a consistent cover due to uneven terrain, trees, windmills, etc. Alternatively, a ground machine may have to make turns in small spaces and end up running over crop. “This is not a plane versus drone battle,” said Chris. “Rather, the drone is validation that aerial is a good option for a field.” 

SV can fly up to three drones in the same field with one operator; this is known as a swarm. In the months ahead, SV will complete variable rate testing as well as some crop scout-ing to determine how to offer those services to customers in the future.  

"We plan to have some demo days around Key locations so growers can see how the drones operate and determine if they would be a good fit for their fields," said Key Sales & Marketing Manager Kelly Els. "Additionally, we feel that partnering with SV will help us expand our internal trial program. Drone application will allow us to test more products and replications of products like fungicides and foliar fertilizers."
This year, SV Aerial & Consulting has a goal of flying more than 10,000 acres, utilizing three other pilots and support staff. Next year, they intend to nearly triple those acres, adding nine more drones and more pilots if necessary.  

"As ag becomes more and more important to feed the world, we have to find efficiencies and become better growers. Drones could be one way to do that," concluded Eric. 

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