From Battlefields to Crop fields
With a whir of its motors, the aircraft lifts off and zooms into the sky under the skillful hands of its pilot, U.S. Marine veteran Luke McClanahan. As the machine soars above, McClanahan keeps a running dialogue with observers on the ground, reporting headings, coordinates, waypoints, altitude, speed, and flight time and recording photos, videos, and critical data. After 4 minutes, 46 seconds, he lands the aircraft, its mission complete.
Despite the military precision of the flight, this is no combat operation over battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s an agricultural operation over row-crop fields in Crockett County, where unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as drones, are being researched and tested for realworld applications in farming. This work is being conducted by Farmspace Systems, a veteran-owned company launched in February 2014 to research UAS technology in agriculture and provide sales and service of related equipment. “We’re a data services company using drones to collect the data,” says Farmspace President John Castellaw, a retired U.S. Marine lieutenant general. “We’re focused on agriculture, using these unmanned aircraft to collect crop images and information on plant health for use in precision farming practices.”
With a background in military, aviation, and agriculture, Castellaw brings a unique combination of skills to the UAS industry. Raised on a diversified farm in Alamo, he spent 36 years in the Marine Corps, commanding its equivalent of the Navy’s famed “Top Gun” training program. Retiring in 2008 as a three-star general, Castellaw returned to the family farm, where he continues to raise row crops and hay. Last year, he founded Farmspace with fellow veterans Derick Seaton and Troy Hittle, both retired from the Air Force. They’ve made a point to hire other veterans to help build the company. “As veterans, we have decades of experience using these systems and are familiar with integrating varieties of data into a single, usable platform,” says Castellaw. “We also have experience in managing risk, and many of us come from rural areas or have agricultural backgrounds. This gives us an opportunity to advance precision farming to the point where we can feed billions more people by 2050.”
The role of drones on the farm isn’t that much different from those in the military, the general insists. He says UAS technology is just one more tool for farmers to generate critical decision-making data. “As commander in the military, I was assigned a battle space, and my job was to know everything about what was happening there,” says Castellaw. “I used all the resources at my disposal: manned aircraft, people on the ground, satellites, drones. That gave me the information I needed to make a decision. The same goes for agriculture. We’re talking about l Alamo Piloting an unmanned aerial systems (UAS) aircraft by remote control over a soybean field in Crockett County, Luke McClanahan, left, a Middle Tennessee State University aerospace student, shows Bill Brooks, Mid-South Farmers Cooperative’s Alamo location manager, some of the machine’s capabilities. McClanahan is working with Farmspace Systems, an Alamo-based UAS company, on behalf of the university to help research and develop this technology for use on the farm and in agribusinesses like Co-op.
On behalf of MTSU, Farmspace is authorized to fly in a 5,000-acre range on Jimmy Hargett’s farm in Alamo. Purpose of this mission was to see if stand count in this young soybean field could be determined. — Photo provided by MTSU Story and photos by Allison Morgan August 2015 9 creating situational awareness — to use a military term — to make decisions that will save farmers money, increase yield, and allow them to better manage their acreage.”
Even though drones have not yet been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for full-scale commercial use, they can be flown with specific FAA waivers and for hobby purposes, says Castellaw. Farmspace is currently operating in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), which is known for its top-rated aviation program. Drone pilot McClanahan is a technician and operations assistant for the program, studying maintenance management in MTSU’s Aerospace Department. “Farmspace plays a critical role in helping us develop unmanned aircraft operations,” says Doug Campbell, operations manager of the UAS program at MTSU. “They are providing us with information on flight profiles, safety considerations, video systems, data links, command and control — all over agricultural land. Everything supports the aeronautical research and education that it takes to reinforce that UAS are safe to fly in national airspace.”
Farmspace operates in a 5,000-acre, FAA-authorized range for MTSU on the Alamo farm of Mid-South Farmers Cooperative member Jimmy Hargett, described by Castellaw as an “innovator” in the ag industry. The Hargett family grows corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat, allowing Farmspace to research drone capabilities with a variety of crops. The company has approval to collect data, develop processes and procedures, test software and sensors, and learn how to effectively use unmanned aircraft on the farm. “I’ve been using a parasail to fly over and check my crops for the past eight to 10 years, but the drone is a lot faster, easier, and safer,” says Hargett. “A drone can fly over and see everything I want to see. Plus, I’ve got 21 irrigation systems that I’d love to be able to check twice a day, and drones could really help with that. I see a big benefit from them.” While conducting its aeronautical research, Farmspace also has been working closely with Tennessee Farmers Cooperative to determine how UAS technology could be used in the Co-op system to benefit growers statewide. Eventually, Co-ops might even sell drones for use on the farm.