An almost too-perfect storm of circumstance, some might even call it fate, catapulted AgEagle founder Bret Chilcott into the now-vast world of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
Growing up on a South Central, KS-area farm, the aviation-crazed Chilcott fondly recalls “spending nearly every single penny I earned on model airplanes and flying lessons.” Getting his wings locally flying single engine Cessna’s and Gliders, at the same time Chilcott launched a career in advanced composite materials for a Neodesha-based boat manufacturer. It was there that he gained much of the expertise, combined with his aviation and ag backgrounds, that would help him launch the company that today is “totally focused on the ag UAV industry.”
“In its infancy when computers were not mainstream yet, the computer industry was pretty much just a bunch of guys with a hobby messing around in their garages, building systems from components,” says Chilcott. “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, they turned a hobby into an industry, and that’s very similar to our approach as a UAV manufacturer. We’re trying to make these systems as simple as possible for both the grower and the agronomist.”
UAVs were not always the singular focus at the company that preceded AgEagle, however. During the 2008 Financial Crisis, the company had been focused on supplying advanced composites for military and trucking applications when, as luck would have it, nearby Kansas State University began a research program on UAVs in agriculture. His longtime passion and interest in aviation peaked, Chilcott contacted KSU and volunteered to produce a prototype airframe for the researchers, during which he quickly realized the promise of UAVs in agriculture and decided to narrow his outfit’s focus.
Now with a growing international presence (AgEagle boasts dealerships in Australia, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile), the eight employee outfit is making noise in domestic markets with its 2014 Ag Eagle model, a product of collaboration with KSU, as well as employees from Spirit Aerosystems and Cessna Aircraft Co., both of which keep offices in the Wichita area.
Combining a flying wing airframe made out of hardened fiberglass/carbon fiber with Kevlar-edged wings, the sturdiness of AgEagle’s product sets it apart from the crowd, according to Chilcott.
“Our airframe was designed for abuse, developed and tested in western Kansas winds – some of the strongest prevailing winds in the country,” he says. “Speaking of other products, anything that you can launch by hand is really just a toy, and I’m not so sure it can handle the 32+ MPH winds like ours can.”
Besides being a complete turnkey product that includes all camera, software (including an NDVI image reading program) and launching equipment, Chilcott says the company dispatches a representative for in-person training to all customers that request it.
Another distinguishing feature on the AgEagle is its landing versatility; Chilcott recommends operators just land the UAV directly “onto the top of the crop,” eliminating the need for an expansive landing/takeoff area and landing gear which can break or malfunction.
Going forward, once FAA opens up commercial airspace to UAVs in 2015, Chilcott sees multiple concepts expanding the market even further.
“Down the road we are looking at being able to monitor and track individual livestock, and building both smaller (for growers imaging 40-60 acre fields) and larger UAVs (to accommodate more advanced imaging equipment),” he says. “Long term, we’re looking at building systems that can seed cover crops – these will be much larger (than the current AgEagle) and gas-powered.”
Still, never one to let the moment pass, Chilcott is relishing the takeoff of his relatively young company in an ever-crowding industry.
“Orders are coming in so fast and so furious, we could probably use another building here in the next month or so.”