Thomas R. Oldt
Among the more unusual professions to be found in this area is the vocation practiced by Andrew Osburn.
The lanky 50-year-old entrepreneur and Army veteran’s eclectic background – recording studio engineer, website designer, utility field worker, French horn player, videographer, remodeler – led to his uncommon occupation as a professional drone pilot.
Born in Indiana and educated in the arcane science of geographic information systems, Osburn owns and operates Polk Drones LLC.
Q. What is the essence of your business?
A. Using drones, I produce and provide data for crop insurance companies. The USDA approves certain crop insurance providers. There are 14, including four or five large companies. They are beginning to see how drones make their lives much more productive when they don’t have to go into the groves, up and down every row with a clicker counting trees – which is how some still do it.
Q. How did you happen to get into this line of work?
A. My college roommate and I both took geographic information systems (GIS) classes. He stayed in the field his entire career and started using drones. I realized that there’s a lot of potential, yet no one was doing it in Central Florida. I decided I wanted to be the first.
Q. What are the requirements to become a commercial drone pilot?
A. It’s one certification called a Part 107. You pay a fee, take the test at an FAA approved aviation testing facility, get a certificate and take continuing education. You also need commercial aviation liability insurance.
Q. What limitations does the FAA place on the use of drones?
A. The FAA rules for drones don’t permit them to fly beyond 400 feet above ground level. The altitude you fly determines the final resolution. I typically fly at about 250 feet. My customers want and need the best resolution I can provide, which involves a lot of fine-tuning. You can find a full list of regulations on the FAA website.
Q. How does your system work?
A. The drone flies over the area of interest with side overlap and forward overlap so it doesn’t miss anything and then software processes the photos into one seamless rendering of the area. It’s very high resolution compared to what you see on Google maps or Google Earth. Those are all geographic information systems. Most everything in our lives has some aspect of GIS associated with it. GIS is literally the science of “where.” Anything with a spatial relationship – where you can measure its location and its effect on other things or other things’ effect on it – that’s the basis of geographic information systems.
Q. How big an area can you assess at one time?
A. It just depends on the size of the crop insurance policy. If it’s a 5-acre grove and that’s all there is on the policy then that’s all there is. If it’s a 2,000-acre policy, with property scattered all over the county, then that’s the policy – it all goes into one rendering so you don’t have to shuffle through stacks of paper or sketches or plats. This information gives you an accurate tree count but it also tells you the size of each tree and the diameter of the canopy so if someone’s interested in only insuring certain sizes, they can easily establish that. If they want to know how many resets or skips there are, we can identify/count those immediately. We can also determine the health of the tree.
Q. What is the process for identifying an area to be evaluated?
A. On a map, the area to be counted is outlined, then I make a flight plan on my software – and the drone flies like a lawnmower back-and-forth in the air taking thousands of pictures. Then an algorithm processes it and produces the information we’re after.
Q. Is your business primarily agricultural?
A. About 95% – the rest of it is construction. I’ve done a lot of projects for the city of Winter Haven. There were three or four other firms from around the country competing for a continuing service contract, and I managed to beat out some bigwigs. For the downtown project I was capturing data twice a month. I also did the Chain of Lakes park and field house, tennis courts, Lake Maude Recreational Complex, Polk State athletic fields and Martin Luther King park. With construction projects you can watch the progression over time and measure it with drones. These are some of the cool tools people use to examine what’s going on with their property.
Q. What aircraft are you currently using?
A. The DJI Matrice 200, a workhorse for agriculture. It can carry a fairly heavy payload. I’m using an RGB camera that produces a full color rendering like what we see on Google maps, only much better. I’m also using a multi-spectral sensor, which is reading all of the spectrums of light that we can’t see with our eyes. When it goes through the computer and the algorithms process the data, it can determine different things about the plant health. So now the crop insurance company can determine, if it chooses, that anything above a predetermined percentage of health should be insured and anything below that percentage of health shouldn’t be. They weren’t really able to do that before in a timely fashion.
Q. Do you operate just in Polk County?
A. I’ve operated out of 18 counties in Florida so far – lots of miles, lots of windshield time in the van.
Q. How many drones have you gone through?
A. The first type that I was using was a “pro-sumer” quad copter – not consumer, not professional – and I wore out four of them before realizing I needed to up my game, needed something more efficient that could cover a lot more ground, so I ended up with a company out of Germany called Quantum Systems. I was the first person in the world to get their newest fixed wing VTOL – vertical takeoff and landing – sort of like the Osprey aircraft. It crashed on day one from overheating – flew into the ground and just disintegrated. They sent a replacement and I used it for a while and got a lot more done, but at a certain point I tried my buddy’s commercial quad copter, not a VTOL, with really big props, and I bought two of them. Why two? Because ”two is one and one is none” – you’ve got to have a backup for everything. It’s much easier and much more convenient than the fixed wing, far easier to take off and land – and I can get in and out of tight spaces while still covering huge areas.
Q. Have you ever lost one – just disappeared without a trace?
A. On Friday the 13th in March, just before COVID, I was doing a fairly large grove next to government property with hundreds of acres of tall dead waist-high grass, using the VTOL. It was coming in for a landing but never transitioned to vertical – just kept descending right over my head at full speed, about 50 miles per hour, right into the grasslands. Luckily it didn’t set the place on fire. Can you imagine, hundreds of acres owned by the government? That would not have been fun to deal with. The manufacturer replaced the drone but I never used it again.
Q. How long can the drone you’re using now stay aloft?
A. It mainly depends on how hard the wind is blowing and how hard you’re running it but generally around 40 minutes on a set of two batteries. The fixed wing VTOL had a 90 minute aloft battery on it and that sounds great but it gets boring waiting 90 minutes to change the battery. You’ve got to keep your eye on it continuously – you have to always keep an eye out for manned aircraft coming in from who knows where.
Q. Those of us who fly small airplanes harbor a latent fear that some yahoo with an overdeveloped drone and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility is going to launch one in our flight path someday. Bad as it would be for a single engine plane, a drone swallowed up by a commercial jet would be far more disastrous. As a professional drone pilot, do you share the trepidation that it’s only a matter of time before an incident like that happens?
A. Obviously, you have to think about it constantly. The entire time the drone is in the air, you’re thinking about it, watching and listening for other aircraft. Not all manned aircraft use ADS-B, which shows location/velocity on my control screen. Helicopters come out of nowhere, seaplanes and crop dusters come out of nowhere – they can come out under the horizon, under the tree line, seemingly out of nowhere. You must have your drone under visual observation and be able to see and avoid manned aircraft the entire time.
Q. How do you see the future of your business?
A. I hope it expands into additional crops, for additional companies, in additional states. Right now, I’m looking at apples in the state of Washington. Anything that’s considered a specialty crop is more likely to use drones.
Q. Most people who own drones use them for recreation. What do you do for fun?
A. I like vintage motor scooters – especially Vespas. The one I have now is from the 60s. I have a moped from the 70s that I got as a wedding gift. I have a big BMW scooter that I ride all over the country. I’m a motorized guy.
Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at [email protected].