The spotlight in ag aviation for the last couple of years has been unmanned aerial vehicles, often called drones. However, a newcomer to Kansas, TerrAvion, is gaining market share doing photography the old-fashioned way — with a powerful camera mounted on a small, piloted aircraft.
TerrAvion in Kansas is headquartered out of the home office of its new regional vice president, John West, who lives in Hope. Its flight operations are based at airports in El Dorado and Hays.
"What we have developed with this business model is a way to provide aerial images to producers at a fraction of the cost of other imagery providers," says company owner and founder Robert Morris. "Our focus is really on processing and delivering the images to the farmer. That post-processing is the expensive part, and that is the part that we have been able to automate."
TerrAvion is partnering with CHS and ServiTech and working with approximately 40 other agricultural retail locations and agricultural consultants in Kansas to ensure that farmers can purchase TerrAvion aerial imagery from partners who are intimately familiar with their farming operations.
Producers can get a package of images from each of 12 flights, each timed to match important agronomic dates during the growing season, for $4 per acre.
TerrAvion has developed its own camera pods, customized and approved by the FAA for mounting on the belly of either a Cessna 172 or 182.
"By using aircraft, we can get a view of the crop from 7,500 feet — high enough to get a bird’s-eye view of the field, but low enough to avoid interference such as clouds or positioning that can cause problems with images from satellites," Morris says.
West says the company works with local pilots, especially recent flight school graduates who are anxious to build the pilot-in-command hours of flying that enable them to land jobs with the airlines or other flight companies.
"The advantage for us is that the flight schools or other operators already have the airplanes. We don't have to invest in planes or worry about hangars, management, maintenance and all that. We just pay for the use of the plane and the pilot," he says.
For farmers, hiring TerrAvion means they get the images the day after each flight, already processed to give them the information they need about the health of their crop, any problems with disease or irrigation, and even possible insect infestation.
A day of flying costs the company about $1,000 and enables the collection of data on up to 500,000 acres of crops.
From each flight, a grower gets five images: plant vigor images, thermal images, custom color maps, underlying data and histograms from TerrAvion, at far greater detail than any other aerial imagery provider.
"TerrAvion’s imagery lets me understand what’s going on in every field and gives me a look into the future to help solve problems before it is too late. The images make me more efficient and help farmers improve their bottom line,” says Steve Soden, chief crop service officer for Servi-Tech.
“TerrAvion images give growers and crop consultants the opportunity to see what is happening on the farm in real time, whether it is plant health or irrigation problems, enabling them to take action and avoid adverse impacts to yields."
West is a longtime seedsman who holds an agronomy degree from Kansas State University.
"I have always had a strong interest in technology and precision ag, as well as being an aviation buff," he says.
"Before TerrAvion, Kansas growers had only two options for aerial images, low-quality and outdated satellite images or expensive and inefficient drones that can require a full day's time for an operator," West says.
He adds that this summer he will be doing some work with K-State scientists who have been conducting imagery with drones.
"We are talking about being able to capture the images of large amounts of territory that give us the information we need to use drones for more detailed images with greater precision and efficiency," he says. "If one of our thermal images spots a specific area of a field where there is a problem, the crop consultant or drone pilot could send the drone to that area to take images much closer to the plant canopy to provide details."
Before joining TerrAvion, West had been working as an agronomist with Heartland Co-op.
"I am so happy to be back on the family farm in north-central Kansas and working with TerrAvion," he says.
To learn more about TerrAvion’s services, visit terravion.com.