Eric Jones is a certified drone pilot, drone flight instructor, and business owner based in the Washington D.C. area. His company, Heartland Consulting, helps organizations build and improve their business development programs.
In 2016 Eric took a hiatus from the corporate world to develop new applications for drone technology.
A DJI Mavic and Inspire 1 are set up to conduct a survey of a vineyard block.
“I wanted to do something new and more interesting with my life,” Eric told us in our recent interview. We sat down with Eric to discuss how he’s transforming the work he does at Heartland Consulting to include drone-based aerial imagery and to serve a new client base—agricultural growers.
Eric hopes to develop commercially viable imagery services that leverage the strengths of drone technology to help agricultural growers identify diseases among their crops earlier, optimize harvest times, and improve yield and quality. In this interview, he addresses how he is working with agricultural growers to explore these possibilities for using drones to improve their bottom lines.
When were you first introduced to drones?
My first drone was a birthday present in 2014. It was a Phantom One FC40, and my first flight ever with the drone was at night in front of my house in Northern Virginia. The Part 107 rules hadn’t come out yet, and at the time, I had no idea what I was doing. But that was how I got started—this amazing gift that turned into something I was completely intrigued by.
From there, I learned by doing, as I had no aviation experience. About two years after that first flight, I started experimenting with survey flights over vineyards in southern Virginia. Again, not knowing what I was doing, but having a great time learning.
On the vineyards, I learned the basics and the fundamentals of survey flying. Collecting the images, processing the images, and then working out a way to deliver that imagery back to the clients.
Veritas Vineyard and Winery was one of the first locations that allowed Eric to practice collecting crop survey images through semi-autonomous flight using a DJI Inspire 1.
As you were getting into drones, you also had a full-time corporate job. How did you balance the two?
So, I took a work hiatus to sort of jump into this and worked it out. I spent that time learning about drones, about imagery, and learning about the wine growing business, while also establishing my consulting firm. This was after a period of mid-life soul searching in which I realized I wanted to do something new and more interesting with my life.
Now, my long term goal is to increase the work I’m doing with agriculture, particularly in wine-growing.
What are you doing to educate agricultural growers about the valuable uses of drones?
That’s the trick right now, to make that last mile of connection between what growers are used to doing, and then showing them the benefits of aerial imagery and how it can help them improve their growing practices.
The drones are fun to watch, but the growers quite frankly don’t care about the drone. They care about the benefits the drones produce.
My challenge is making that connection with growers to learn about the challenges they face and continuing to hone the model for making this work. Over the past two years, I have flown over a number of vineyards around Virginia to show growers the potential benefits of using aerial imagery.
It seems like you and your clients somewhat intuitively recognize that the value isn’t in the drone itself, but in what it can produce.
The client isn’t paying you to fly the aircraft; they’re paying you for what your service provides them. Whether it’s with a drone or a balloon or a camera mounted on a pole, the client doesn’t care.
What I am working toward is a lower-cost option for collecting, processing, and delivering field imagery; drones are just part of the process of getting there. What the conversation ultimately is about is the imagery and the information it can provide.
In this quick, one-minute video, Eric demos how he used a drone to collect data and create a near-infrared (NIR) image of a vineyard, which can be used to determine plant health based on light absorption. (Video produced by Deerfoot Media, using imagery collected by Eric.)
What benefits of aerial imagery do you stress when trying to secure a client in the agricultural sector?
I talk about cost avoidance and the potential for increases in yields.
The imagery makes it possible to identify emerging problems with pests and diseases, which enables precision treatment of smaller sections of the vineyard. That reduces chemical costs, and for many people, there is an inherent benefit in using fewer chemicals.
During harvest season, imagery can help them decide what sections, or blocks, of the vineyards they should focus on first. You can make that determination, theoretically, more quickly using imagery. It’s a complement to their normal field observations and their traditional scouting practices. It helps them more quickly identify areas that may require immediate attention and reduces the time they have to spend walking the fields visually inspecting plants.
You have on-the-ground experience surveying vineyards. Did those hands-on experiences help you better understand the needs and views of growers?
Definitely. To really squeeze the value out of imagery collected with drones, you have to be on the ground getting dirty with the equipment, knowing how it works in a particular environment, and then optimizing the variables to make it work in a way that delivers value to a client. That includes knowing when to fly a collection mission, how often, and under what conditions. Such variables are often based on the scouting practices of a particular vineyard. I have come to appreciate that there are not many “universal” answers in viticulture. Taking the time to learn and appreciate those differences on a client-by-client basis can go a long way toward building trust in both the technology and me.
What predictions do you have for the agricultural sector of the drone industry?
I think we’re moving from the semi-autonomous technologies of today to autonomous operations performed beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). I see drone pilots eventually evolving into mission managers, perhaps overseeing several remotely placed and operated “drone-in-a-box” systems over a large geographic area. Actual “hands-on” piloting of a drone in real time will become the exception–once the technology and the regulations allow for that.
Eric Jones is also a flight instructor for UAV Coach. You can book a 90-minute, hands-on flight training class with him in the Virginia area on our flight training page.