ASDA and Hamilton Native Outpost partner to develop an aerial seeding system
ELK CREEK, MO. – A chance meeting at Hamilton Native Outpost in Texas County, Mo., turned into a new business and partnership to help farmers and landowners improve their forages and soil without traditional farming equipment.
In 2017, Keith Knepper of Kirkwood, Mo., traveled to Elk Creek, Mo., and Hamilton Native Outpost to learn about wildflowers. During the field day, Keith became more and more interested in information presented by Hamilton Native Outpost co-founder Amy Hamilton regarding problems in the area and the solutions available through plant-based diversification. One of the obstacles for this diversification, however, was the ability to actually get hard-to-flow seed to some rugged and remote areas.
“One thing led to another and I told Amy I was working with my son on possibly doing something with drones over the ocean because he’s a diver, and Amy replaced what with something that was a lot more fascinating to me,” Keith, who was formerly employed by a Fortune 500 corporate jet OEM, custom modification and manufacturing companies for 27 years with responsibilities of engineering and management of IT, planning and quality assurance functions, recalled. “That was helping out with day-to-day farming operations with technology. We weren’t sure how drones fit in on a farm. We knew about for imagery and sensors, and looking at cattle, but we were interested in putting it to work as a workhorse and putting it in the air and seeds on the ground.
Keith and partner Lee Lammert, an entrepreneur with 40 years of experience in hardware and software technology consulting and 10 years as an ITEN (innovative center) mentor, got to work, and after three years of working with Hamilton Native Outpost and the Hamilton family, they started Aerial Spreader Drone Services (ASDS) in 2020.
“Keith came and wanted to help,” Amy said. “My dream was to take some of these quality-woodlands that have a real low site index and convert them into savannah. When we do this, we can plant diversity, utilize fire and a lot of slopes I have in timber are really steep, so bulldozing isn’t much of an option, and this also allows us to plant our open ground to diverse natives for grazing. Diversity has warm- and cool-season grasses, wildflowers and is really a soil health builder, just like in the savannahs.
“Our woodlands are so crowded they don’t have these perennial plants growing in them anymore. These perennial plants, with their roots that live, die and replace themselves, really have the ability to build our soil.”
The patented spreader and hopper are mounted to the bottom of a drone and can navigate through wooded areas, under power lines, over wetlands and up hills, areas that can be unreachable with a tractor or other equipment. Aerial application also reduces soil compaction, fuel use, time and is safer for operators by eliminating the change for accidents in rugged areas.
“We had prototypes out of the barn pretty quick, and I tried to pull everything I could into engineering, and we made a great city-rural team, and get us out there,” Keith said. “We made the first one pretty much so that you can throw anything into the hopper, and it can handle a wide variety of seeds.”
While the use of drone technology and a specially constructed spreader for seeding is new technology, older existing technology was also critical in the development of the spreader.
“We have been in the seed-cleaning business for a long time,” Amy said. “By mimicking some of the equipment we already use to meter seed and clean it, the prototype came pretty quick for the fluffy native grasses. Native grasses are the hardest thing to clean and plant.”
The availability of seeds at Hamilton Native Outpost, more than 100 varieties of native grasses and wildflowers, allowed them to experiment with many different crops and seeds.
“I didn’t realize we had a great testing facility right there,” Keith said.
“We had prototypes out of the barn pretty quick, and I tried to pull everything I could into engineering, and we made a great city-rural team.”
— Keith Knepper
ASDS’s initial drones cannot carry 200 pounds of seed, but Keith said it is all about the acres per day it can cover, which also involves the ground refill tasks. Working with American-based drone manufactures to develop more efficient aircraft, ASDS drones will apply more seed and can cover 300 to 600 acres per day.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Keith said. “Some of the guys in North Missouri tell me they are buying equipment that’s more than $50,000 to knock out 200 acres any day they want for optimal conditions. We are super excited about getting a platform attached to the spreader and even fly two to four hoppers, which gives us a lot of other options of supporting farmers at the most optimal time that they require.”
Drones used by ASDA are much larger than what Keith called “off-the-shelf drones,” which he said could carry about 10 to 14 pounds safely.
Additional software and other upgrades are also part of the evolving technology ASDS is currently developing.
“We need to get even more precise (in application), but right now, there are paths you can follow,” Keith explained. “Let’s say you are doing an application with four or five different materials; you can have the option to pull one material out and then fly that one two or three weeks later because you have that flight path. It might be something very attractive to producers. Wouldn’t it be great if, because of weather or manned aircraft is not available when you need them, you can put that automatic feature back in there and tell it to run north field one again for your multiple application needs.”
For Amy and Hamilton Native Outpost, the cooperation and partnership with ASDS have been beneficial in many aspects. There has also been a great deal of success with cover crop applications.
“The original purpose was to plant diverse natives, but what it has blossomed out to is diverse cover crops. We can fly over the corn, plant when August rains are coming in, and be thinking about a chain of diversity for feeding cattle. You can plant oats and turnips, which are high in energy and can be used to finish cattle. It’s not like you can’t plant wheat or the rye right along with it, and you can graze later in the season. We have used it in our corn and beans and have learned a lot by doing that, and we can graze our cattle right along with it, so it’s natural for cover crops. As this technology continues to develop, it’s going to get easier and easier to do this. We’ve needed Keith to develop the technology, build the flight path and do some of this. We want to develop this technology, so anyone can use it. We hear things about drones being used to spray and all sorts of things, but I like the Johnny Appleseed approach to creating hubs for this new technology as it comes to the farm. We don’t know how this technology will grow; we might be adding micronutrients for fields or soil health testing. We might spot spray weeds with it. I think this is just a win-win.”
“We wanted to handle everything from the fluffy, hard to flow and small ball bearing-like seeds, such as the turnips,” Keith said. “Then there is the precision. There’s the software that allows you to sense conditions. Maybe it’s a little sandy in an area and we don’t want to drop where it’s sandy, or maybe the farmer has told me to drop double on the sandy areas, so we’re going to turn it up a little. We want to be able to accept that wide-range of materials.” This type of industry, Amy added, could also become a revenue source for producers by becoming custom applicators in their communities.
Perhaps the biggest goal for Keith, Amy and their companies is to make aerial seed application accessible for all producers and landowners.
“I think this is really a farm-based tool for certain jobs, and landowners and producers need to be running it, and they need that skill set. If you were to buy it, use it once, and put it in your barn, then that’s not what we want to help folks do,” Keith said. “If we can help folks pollinate that and use it, that gets us excited. It’s all part of that productivity and efficiency we’re all after. Automation and technology should work for us. Amy, Colt (Hamilton, CEO of Hamilton Native Outpost), and company have really been extremely good at validating before we spent too much time, money and energy, and they let me know what they would use in their daily operation. I think we are thankful we met up.”