UAS Startup Images Crops

David Dvorak and his team are simplifying the world of precision agriculture by providing data-capturing payload systems to farmers, agronomists, and plantation managers.
By Emily Aasand | January 12, 2015

When David Dvorak started Field of View in 2010, he saw a business opportunity for unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology in agricultural imaging. After four years, he’s seeing an even bigger need for this technology.

While in college, Dvorak was part of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering research group at the University of North Dakota. While working with that group, led by William Semke, director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering, and the late Richard Shultz, electrical engineering department chair, Dvorak began trying to figure out how people could actually use a small UAV to do agricultural imaging. He found there were many issues with managing the camera triggering and actually knowing if the needed data was collected.

“That experience gave me the exposure to come up with the idea for Field of View’s GeoSnap System,” says Dvorak, CEO of the Grand Forks, North Dakota-based company.

The company was formalized after Dvorak and his team competed in the North Dakota Business Plan Competition through UND. Dvorak and his team won the competition in 2011, which helped the startup company get funding.

A Field of Opportunity
Field of View’s flagship product is the GeoSnap System, a turnkey imaging solution that helps service providers capture data desired by the agriculture industry. Dvorak and his team design and manufacture the systems in its North Dakota office.

The GeoSnap System is a camera add-on designed to facilitate imaging missions by managing camera triggering and streamlining the direct georeferencing of captured images. The stand-alone system can work in any aircraft and doesn’t need to interface with an autopilot. The customer just needs to provide power to the system and mount it in the aircraft to get a complete aerial imaging setup that intelligently triggers the camera and logs the position and altitude of the camera at the moment of image capture.

“We couldn’t really fix the fact that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration kept delaying the release of small UAS regulations, so we focused on what we could control, which is developing technology to help with the imaging process,” Dvorak says. “One way we found we could do that was by producing a visualization of coverage while we are still on the site just to make sure we’re able to get the data we need. With that, we started building early versions of the GeoSnap product. We decided to start selling that hardware and providing consultations.”

The company also resells a stitching software, Agisoft Photoscan Pro, an introductory geographic information system (GIS) software called Global Mapper, and resells Tetracam multispectral cameras.

“We resell Agisoft Photoscan Pro, which is a stitching software that will take all the individual images and make a single, seamless file,” says Dvorak. “We also sell Global Mapper, which will take that data and generate the normalized difference vegetation index and allow you to see differences in crop performance.”

Field of View also provides an onsite training service for customers, which Dvorak says is definitely needed.

“Training is probably the biggest thing, in order to be successful. We are working on building a library of video tutorials to help people walk through the different steps of the various pieces of software that we sell.”

Since Field of View doesn’t provide the actual aircraft, it’s only able to take the training so far, but the company can help customers with anything on the post-processing side of things.

“We’ll be launching an imaging processing service for next growing season where people will be able to send us imagery and we’ll stitch it together and provide it to them,” says Dvorak.

Today, the company consists of Dvorak, Kaci Lemler, operations manager and systems engineer, and Danny Hajicek, software and electrical design engineer based in Los Altos, California.

“All three of us graduated from the University of North Dakota,” says Dvorak. “In addition to us three, we also work with a company out of Fargo [North Dakota] who manages our international sales.”

In its early years, Field of View saw mostly international inquiries.

“As a small startup company trying to deal with someone from Brazil was challenging for us so that’s why we’re working with a company out of Fargo, who takes care of those leads for us,” said Dvorak. “We’ve sold our systems to countries including Canada, France and Australia.”

Servicing Both Sides
Agriculture is quickly becoming a focus in the UAS industry.

Farmers, crop consultants, and ag researchers are beginning to use remote sensing as a tool in making critical decisions, Dvorak says. “Many in the ag industry are enticed by UAS and their promise of high resolution data that can be delivered on demand.”

“We’re a unique company in that we sit in-between two industries—the ag industry and the emerging UAS industry,” Dvorak says. “Our easiest customer is someone who already has an unmanned aircraft and knows how to use it but doesn’t know a lot about the camera side of things.”

As for the future of ag imaging, Dvorak says multicopters will more than likely be the go-to. “The biggest thing right now is endurance and the battery and power system problem. The world is good at solving those eventually over time.”

“The UAS/agriculture equation involves so many pieces of the puzzle to make it work like everyone thinks it can and should work, that you pretty much have to team up with other people who can bring other pieces to the equation,” says Dvorak.

Insight On Regulations
It has been a benefit to be a small company while there haven’t been FAA regulations because the risk of going bankrupt from enormous overhead while waiting for the FAA to enact regulation hasn’t been there, Dvorak says. “It was easier for us, in our early days, to be a small company because we didn’t have this enormous overhead that would make us look like a non-profitable company.”

On the other side, Dvorak says the lack of regulations has been frustrating.

“The biggest challenge right now is that people can’t spend money on our equipment because they don’t have a clear way to link money back to it,” says Dvorak. “If they can buy our equipment and have assurance they can pay it off in a season, then that might be a different story, but with the current FAA situation, it’s not really feasible.”

Dvorak also mentions one of his biggest frustrations is that the UAS/ag industry still doesn’t have a reliable source of imagery from UAS. “I would like to get to the point where farmers can depend on this data and use it as part of everyday management practices,” he said. “A big part of that is to be able to capture the imagery and stitch it together so you can start having all these data points to start driving your analysis.”

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine