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Friday, 09 October 2015 10:43

Special report: Scouting crops from the sky

Written by  Dennis Hines
DMZ Aerial offers technology that can provide an aerial overview of crops, such as the one shown above. Mitch Fiene, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater senior, and his cousin, Zachary Fiene, started the company. DMZ Aerial offers technology that can provide an aerial overview of crops, such as the one shown above. Mitch Fiene, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater senior, and his cousin, Zachary Fiene, started the company. Photo courtesy DMZ Aerial

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- After walking through hundreds of acres of farm fields as crop scouts for four years, Zachary and Mitch Fiene knew there had to be a better way.

The cousins figured that crop conditions could be viewed better from the sky and started DMZ Aerial, which provides unmanned aerial vehicles for the agriculture industry. The vehicles are drone planes with a camera attached to them. The camera takes aerial photographs of crops to detect potential problems.

“We would go out in the fields and look for a number of deficiencies. We would walk along fields that were hundreds of acres ... “ said Zachary, a 2012 University of Wisconsin La Crosse finance graduate. “It would take a long time and you would miss some of the problems. We figured we could get a UAV, strap a camera onto it and examine the fields.”

(Special report: Fall harvest ag editon HERE)

Mitch, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater senior, agreed that the drones make it more convenient for farmers to inspect their fields.

“My dad worked as a crop scout, and he would tell me how he would have to jump over a fence, walk through soybeans and get cut by corn before finally getting to the field he had to inspect,” Mitch said. “By that time, he was too tired to scout the field. With the UAV, you can scout about 4,000 acres.”

The drones are used to check for diseases, nutritional deficiencies and pests.

“They look at soil nutrient infections. They may look at certain patterns that may be occurring in the fields. They may look at discolored plants,” Zachary said. “(The farmers) will know what steps they may need to take to take care of their issues. They may take the photos to a lab and look to see if they can find any other deficiencies.”

DMZ Aerial mostly sells the drones to agricultural businesses and cooperatives, which then supplies them to area farmers. The company also offers drone training seminars for agriculture businesses.

“We also work with other businesses like real estate agents, but the majority of our clients are agricultural businesses,” Zachary said.

Mitch said the drones also can be used to inspect infrastructure such as water towers and bridges.

“There’s hundreds of industries that could use drones for safety issues,” Mitch said. “You can use them to inspect water towers without having someone climb up them. The UAV can fly up there and inspect them to see if there are any problems that need to be fixed. They can be used to inspect bridges. The UAV can fly underneath the bridge without having someone hang from the bridge with a rope or cable.”

Mitch said UAVs also have been used for search and rescue.

“You hear stories about a child with autism that wandered off,” Mitch said. “A UAV can be used in search and rescue, fly over an area and find someone much quicker.”

DMZ Aerial has clients in at least 15 states.

“Most of our customers are in the Midwest, but we have customers in California and Texas, as well,” Zachary said.

The response has been positive, Zachary said.

“They are able to obtain more information about their crops,” Zachary said. “Farmers can use the information to obtain higher yields and lower costs.”

Drone use has been growing and will continue to grow among agricultural businesses, Zachary said.

“When we first started out, we would give presentations to co-ops and retailers, and we were one of the first (companies) in the area using drones,” Zachary said. “Now, we’re seeing a lot more agriculture businesses using drones. You see so many other people implementing them in their business.”

Being involved with the business has helped Mitch with his UW-Whitewater coursework, he said..

“Right now, I’m wearing two hats as a student and owner. I use my business experience in a lot of my classes,” said Mitch, an entrepreneurship major. “In a lot of my classes, I have to write a business plan or a marketing plan. I can bring real-world scenarios into my classes. People ask how can I juggle operating a business and talking classes, but I think about how I can use my business for my coursework.

“(The business) will become a more full-time thing when I graduate and as the business grows.”

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