Tractor mowing green field, aerial view.Photo: iStock
Tractor mowing green field, aerial view.Photo: iStock

Elbit Systems, the listed Israeli defense group, is set to revolutionize the US agriculture industry through its Fargo, North Dakota, pilot program that uses a military-grade unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for crop surveillance.

The program, spearheaded by North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a self-professed techie, is currently operating on an experimental basis in cooperation with North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo.

The drone – Elbit Systems’ first foray into civilian activity – provides near real-time information to farmers, commodity traders and food producers while at the same time dramatically increasing crop yields and mitigating damage stemming from climate change, said John Nowatzki, an NDSU professor and the project’s leader.

The Hermes 450 drone, which has a wingspan of 10.6-meters, transmits near real-time data on wheat, corn and soybean crops from an altitude of over 3,600 meters at a rate of 100,000 acres an hour, Nowatzki said.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions limit the drone to the area around Casselton airfield near Fargo and dictate that it must always be accompanied by manned aircraft, Nowatzki said.

Nowatzki said the FAA is concerned that UAV drones pose a threat to civilian air traffic.

Minneapolis-based DTN/Progressive Farmer is already using mini-weather satellites in the United States to give farmers better weather predictions for crop planting.

The mini-satellites can increase crop yields by 15% to 20%, said Peter Jones, DTN’s vice president for international markets.

DTN, which was recently acquired for US$900 million by TBG AG, a Zurich-based family trust controlled by heirs of Essen, Germany-based steel giant Thyssenkrupp, is now marketing the mini-satellites to developing countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, Iraq and Tunisia.

It’s a safe bet that North Dakota Governor Bugrum, who sold his IT start-up Great Plains to Microsoft for US$ 1.1 billion, highlighted the Elbit/NDSU pilot program when President Donald J. Trump visited Fargo on September 7 for a Make America Great Again campaign rally.

PK Semler

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.