Not Your Grandfather’s Rodeo

By Art Hill
 
Daring young men and women and their flying machines were out in force to kick off the first-ever Ag Drone Rodeo at Ron Linn’s airfield west of Pendleton during the third week of August.
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On day one, surrounded by wheat and potato growing operations, Linn was among the folks greeting their long-time friends in the ag community as the line of pickups, cars and busses backed up for a half mile on Despain Gulch Road. Other greeters included Daryl Abling, newly-appointed manager of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Range, Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest, and Jeff Lorton, director of the range’s Future Farm project.
 
“Welcome to digital agriculture!” Lorton announced to the crowd of over 250 gathered in the shade of Linn’s hangar and a dozen massive white tents. Over half the attendees raised their hands in response to Lorton’s next question “How many of you are ag producers?” It was clear that Drone Rodeo had attracted farmers and ranchers whose livelihood depends on the health of their crops and herds. And it was clear from their comments and questions that they were seeing the technology they came for.
 
Activities started with a detailed introduction of flight systems, imaging devices, and crop data characteristics by ATI and Micasense. The company’s rotor-wing aircraft flew a series of patterns over an adjacent pivot-irrigated field, demonstrating the data gathering that had taken place at nearby Stahl Farms during the weeks leading up to the event. Alternating between automated and directly controlled flight, the aircraft returned to precisely where it had taken off a few minutes earlier to the applause of onlookers.
 
Next up was a fixed-wing aircraft flown by RDO. Its raptor avoidance maneuvers in the cloudless sky, including steep climbs, dives and rolls, made it clear that commercial drones are agile and durable. “These are work machines, not hobby toys” commented one technician. “They’re designed for the real world just like any other piece of farming equipment.”
 
Boeing’s Insitu division then demonstrated multiple aircraft, each flying a coordinated mission plan, and relaying data down to a single operator. After a brief pause to let onlookers turn off their wi-fi enabled smart phones, the Insitu vehicles took to the air, flying patterns to simulate simultaneous data gathering by multiple aircraft.
 
After lunch back at the hangar, the final demonstration of the day was Digital Harvest’s Yamaha R-MAX. Longer than a pickup bed and looking like a manned helicopter, the R-MAX flew simulated applications of herbicide in a precise pattern mapped using a combination of satellite, drone and ground sensor data. Event organizer Jeff Lorton thanked Digital Harvest pilot Steve Lawn for the demonstration and told the crowd “You have made history today. For the first time in the U.S., two R-MAX missions were flown simultaneously, here and a few miles away at Hill Farms.”
 
Following an evening reception at Hamley’s Slick Fork Saloon, day two of Drone Rodeo events took place in the National Guard hanger in Pendleton. Imaging companies explained the patterns of light and color splashed on their laptop screens and computer monitors. Aircraft manufacturers answered questions about flying around and under crop canopies, and ag producers got answers to their questions about cost and availability of the technology, and how it could be applied to their specific operations.

Event sponsors included SOAR Oregon, the City of Pendleton, Umatilla County, Round-Up City Development Corporation, and Micasense.