Savage drone company solves expensive problem for farmers

A Savage company that distributes drone services has entered a billion-dollar market: agriculture.

In 2016, Minnesota’s corn and soybean crops generated more than $9 billion in revenue, according to the University of Minnesota. It seems a lucrative place for any business offering solutions to the industry.

Maverick Drone Systems is an unassuming-looking company tucked away in a business park on Eagle Creek Parkway in Savage, not far from Highway 13, one of the southwest metro area’s heaviest-traveled highways. From its location, Maverick sells drones and related services nationwide in law enforcement, fire departments, commercial and residential real estate, oil and other industries.

And now agriculture.

Maverick is the third company in the country to sell drones that spray herbicide and pesticide on crops, said Joe Elling, Maverick Drone Systems’ unmanned aircraft systems operator and flight coordinator.

So it’s the third company in the U.S. solving an expensive problem for farmers. Spraying pesticide and herbicide on crops can be dangerous work. When planes fly that low to the ground, accidents can happen very easily, not to mention how risky it can be handling poison, Elling said. Insurance to cover pilots can be expensive, he said.

“Crop spraying is a very dangerous operation,” he said. “Your job is constantly putting your life at risk.”

New technology

Maverick sought an exemption from Federal Aviation Administration rules written back in the 1980s, long before drones’ existence.

Specifically, Maverick wanted an exemption from a rule about how agriculture aircrafts can dispense poison that treats soil or crops. The rule simply doesn’t apply to the company because they fly unmanned aircraft.

“[The FAA] didn’t ever think there was going to be an unmanned aircraft,” Elling said.

The FAA agreed with Maverick and made the exemption, which allowed them to move forward with sales. The FAA now has a variety of regulations and initiatives regarding drones, which Elling calls “the wave of the future.”

Maverick also has the right technology in place for this venture. About a year and a half ago, new drones that can dispense and spray liquid — such as herbicide and pesticide — entered the market. Maverick imports the drones from China.

These drones can be far more specific and targeted than a pilot can. Drones can fly to see where a problem is in a crop, and what bug or plant is causing the issue. This is easier and faster work than a human pilot could conduct, Elling explained.

“This new revolution… will really inspire users,” said Adam Shaw, owner and founder of Maverick.

2018 plans

Maverick plans to sell products and services for the next growing season in 2018.

The company plans to either coach farmers on how to use the technology or offer it as a service, Shaw said.

“We can go anywhere in the U.S. now and apply this for farmers,” Shaw said. “Minnesota’s a big farming community. We’ve got a lot to do in this state alone.”

The business has grown quickly in just three years. It started in 2014 in commercial real estate. For example, drones make land inspection easier, Shaw explained. And now Maverick has expanded to a variety of industries. They’re working with law enforcement agencies across Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, Hennepin County and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

Shaw said Chinese manufacturers are “moving ridiculously fast,” with new drone technology coming out every one to three months. Coupled with Maverick’s ambitious goals to one day become the Verizon for drones, the company is positioned for takeoff.

“We want to grow Maverick’s brand nationally,” Shaw said.

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