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Meet a Dronepreneur — 5 Questions for Mark of Hewitt Precision Insights

An experienced agriculture mechanic, Mark Hewitt of Hewitt Precision Insights is no stranger to delving deep into technology. However, when he discovered drones, he saw enough potential to build a business around them, and he now provides detailed aerial insights to crop growers across Minnesota. Waypoint caught up with Mark to learn more.

Hi there, Mark. Let’s start by exploring your journey into the world of drones. When, how and why did you first start thinking about and then using UAVs?

Sure. My journey into drone use really started on the farm I grew up on; we were always working to be more productive off the land that we farmed.

My journey into drone use really started on the farm

I started out after high school as an agriculture mechanic, where I got to work with a lot of technology. When I started, we were still putting aftermarket yield monitors on combines. After working for different dealers as a mechanic, I became “the technology guy” in the shops. It was obvious that was where my passion was. I started working on variable rate application equipment and quickly saw the value that it brings to growers. Then, I moved to a company using satellite imagery for variable rate decision making and I loved it.

After working with satellite imagery for a while, I saw that drone imagery could offer a dramatically higher resolution, making it useful for more than just VR. So, I decided to start my own business, utilising drone imagery to its fullest extent in order to help growers in my area become more profitable.

I’ve been using drone imagery for a year now and am still amazed by the insights I can provide to growers

I’ve been using drone imagery for a full year now and I’m still amazed by the insights I can provide to growers, during the same season, while they still have time to make management decisions that affect their bottom line.

2. Can you tell us about one of your favourite, or most challenging, drone projects? Where and what was it? What made it stand out and what did you learn?

My most challenging projects usually end up becoming my favorites. The one that stands out is imagery we provided for a research company called AgRevival.

AgRevival has multiple small test plots where they try out new products and test their profitability. With these small test plots it’s important to get good, high-resolution imagery, but the most important part is the processing and analysis of the reflectance maps. Here, I quickly discovered that my experience as a farmer gave me a big advantage when working with agricultural imagery.

The [drone] imagery I provided gave this client a much more accurate way to analyse the data and to provide accurate research results

For example, I found that the different plots needed to be processed separately, using Pix4D, in order to get accurate data; when processed together, the corn plots showed all the variation, while the soybeans were just a solid block of red. After they were processed individually though, you could see the variation in the different crops, as well as the different treatments the client was trying to measure.

Using the imagery I provided gave AgRevival a much more accurate way of analysing the data and providing accurate research results. It also sets them apart in the research space, which in turn allows them to win new research contracts.

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eBee-derived NDVI maps of two test plots that Mark flew using Parrot’s Sequoia multispectral sensor. “The top plot is corn, the bottom is soybeans,” he explains. “The blue areas are the healthiest areas of vegetation, going down the colour scheme to green, yellow, orange and finally red as the least healthy areas of the field.”
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“Using NDVI imagery allows me to see the unhealthy areas of the field before scouting. This way, I can make sure the problem spots get scouted on every field,” Mark explains.

3. What impact would you say drone technology has had on your working life?

Drone technology has made lots of my work on the farm easier and there’s a lot of interest and curiosity in agricultural drone imagery, so I also spend a lot of time talking about the benefits to growers in my area and around the world.

Using the drone’s imagery saves me time when scouting my fields. It also gives me a better idea of how my crop is performing.

Using the drone’s imagery saves me time when scouting my fields. It also gives me a better idea of how my crop is performing, giving me the ability to see the results of on-farm trials early in the growing season and then to follow these through to crop development and all the way to yield.

When used as a tool to scout more efficiently and reduce fertiliser waste, I’ve found that UAVs can create an ROI of around $9 per acre. This is through them allowing us to concentrate our scouting efforts in the less healthy areas of the field, finding the cause of crop stress and making a treatment before the crop stress translates to yield loss.

All that said, UAVs are just still a part of a full precision ag program.

Read Mark’s blog post: Putting Aerial Imagery to Work for Your Farm

4. What kind of role do you see drone technology playing in the future for companies like yours? Can you imagine what your working life might look several years down the line?

I think the marketplace is still working out how drones fit in. There is a lot of interest from many growers, but the technology is still somewhat unproven as to how it can help them be more profitable.

… in the future, drone imagery will be just as common as a yield monitor in the combine

I think that in the future drone imagery will become just as common as a yield monitor in the combine; it will just take a little time for us to get that far. Every grower I have provided the service for has been amazed at what it can offer them and has suggested that we fly more of their ground by drone the next year.

As with any technology, the most progressive growers will utilise it the most and then it will trickle down to become a common farm tool.

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Mark employs a range of senseFly UAV sensors to suit the project: “I use the Sequoia for reflectance maps, the thermoMAP for thermal imagery, and the senseFly S.O.D.A. for RGB imagery and topographic mapping.”
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“Adding a thermal image gives us another layer of data on soil types, allowing us to know which soils warm up faster, to prioritise planting decisions,” says Mark.

Read Mark’s blog post: UAV Imagery is More Than a Pretty Picture

5. And finally Mark, if you could give three tips to a budding dronepreneur of the future, what would these be?

1. Decide on an industry to target and learn everything you can about that industry. There are many uses for drones, from agriculture, construction and mining to forestry, real estate, the list goes on.

You need to be part of the industry you’re serving first, and a drone operator second

In my opinion, you need to be part of the industry you’re serving first, and a drone operator second. This is why I chose to serve agriculture and construction; these are two industries I know very well, which allows me to serve my customers better.

2. Start small. Probably, in hindsight, I should have started with a lower-end drone that was more affordable, but I’ve always been a “go big or go home” kind of guy. I would suggest doing imagery part time until you have a bit of a track record and get the bugs worked out of your workflow and sales system.

3. Get out there! Get onto Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and tell people about what you do—be proud of the service you’re providing.

I was never very into Twitter but I knew I needed to be on it for advertising. Now, I find it fun to let my followers know what I’m up to day-to-day. It’s also a good way to network with other drone operators and to ask questions about what works or doesn’t work for them, including how to price yourself. Anything you could possibly need to know, you can find on social media.

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Hewitt Precision Insights

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Industries served: agriculture, construction, light mining
Drones: eBee Plus
Software: eMotion 3 (flight control), Pix4D (image processing)
Avg. flights per month: 15-20
Total flight hours: Approx. 90 h
Dream robot: “Being a farmer, I would love to have a robot that just roves around my fields pulling up weeds, so I don’t need to spray. Then, when it gets done with weeds, it could pick rocks out of my fields so I don’t need to ever do that again!”
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