Eric Jones is a certified drone pilot, drone flight instructor, and business owner based in the Washington D.C. area. Through his company, Heartland Consulting, he helps federal and state government agencies adopt new information technology (IT).
In 2004 Eric took a two-year hiatus from work that led to a career epiphany and ultimately set him on the path to pursue work in the drone industry.
“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 educate agricultural growers on drone uses that will help them identify disease among their crops early, optimize harvest times, and improve their production in terms of yield and quality. In this interview, he addresses how he overcomes the challenge of communicating to agricultural growers what they can accomplish with drone-based aerial imagery and how it will serve their bottom line.
When were you first introduced to drones?
My first drone was a birthday present. It was a Phantom One FC40, and my first flight ever with the drone was done at night time in what is now the Flight Restriction Zone in D.C. The Part 107 rules hadn’t come out yet, but today that flight would have violated at least ten civil regulations. But that was how I got started—this present that turned into something I was completely enamored with.
From there, I learned by doing. My background in aviation was largely non-existent before I started playing with drones. About two years after that first flight, I started flying surveys for 50-acre vineyards down in southern Virginia. Again, not knowing what I was doing, but having a great time learning it. It just seemed to come naturally to me in a lot of ways.
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.
As you were getting into drones, you also had a full-time consulting 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. This was sort of down the heels of a career epiphany that I had about wanting to do something new and more interesting with my life.
Now, my long term goal is to morph what I’m doing with my consulting company, Heartland Consulting, with the drone space on the agriculture side, particularly the vineyards in and around the Mid Atlantic area. Helping them improve their production in terms of yield and quality of yield by being more efficient with their inputs.
What are you doing to educate agricultural growers about the valuable uses of drones?
That’s really kind of the trick right now, to make that last mile of connection between what growers are doing, what they’re used to doing, and then showing them the benefits of aerial imagery and how it can help them improve what they’re currently doing in their growing practices.
The drones are fun to watch, but the growers quite frankly don’t care about the drone. They care about the industry the drones produce. That principle is the last mile of connecting what they do for a living with what I can offer them to do it better, cheaper, and more efficiently.
That’s kind of the swirl that I’m in at the moment—just making that connection with more and more growers. I’ve done that over the years by doing a lot of free flying over a number of vineyards around Virginia and showing the growers the outcome of that work.
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 steer-mounted pole, the client doesn’t care.
What I offer growers is a lower cost option for collecting and analyzing field imagery; drones are just a way to get there. What the conversation ultimately is about is the imagery. It’s not the drone.
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.
What benefits of aerial imagery do you stress when trying to secure a client in the agricultural sector?
The argument I’m using for a lot of these folks in terms of affording imagery is what you can avoid in terms of paying for pesticides or optimizing your harvest during harvest season to help you decide what blocks within the vineyards you should focus on first. You can make that determination, theoretically, more quickly using drone imagery. It’s a compliment to their normal field observations and their normal scouting practices. It helps them hone in more quickly on the areas they want to focus on as opposed to spending a whole day walking the fields the old fashioned way.
Aerial imagery can help them identify areas of highest interest more quickly. Then they can focus their harvesting labor or their pesticide treatment labor on the areas that are in most need of attention instead of spraying the entire field first and hoping they got it all. You can cut down on pesticide application which is good for the environment, and it saves them money too because pesticides are extremely expensive. That’s kind of where this all rolls up—it helps them do more with less.
You have the on-the-ground experience surveying vineyards. Did those hands-on experiences help you better understand the needs and views of growers?
I think to really squeeze the value out of drones, you have to be on the ground getting dirty with the equipment, knowing how it works in your particular environment, and then optimizing the variables to make it work in a way that makes everyone get what they need out of it.
What predictions do you have for the agricultural sector of the drone industry?
I think we’re moving from the semi-autonomous to near-autonomous flying where pilots are going to become more mission managers/safety overseers. You won’t necessarily need a drone pilot out there with his fingers on the controller, flying the drone, as we were doing a couple of years ago. So, I think that’ll be an important transition when 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.