Connect Business Magazine

Since 1994: The Magazine for Growing Businesses in Southern Minnesota

Aker / Leading Edge Technologies

By • Jul 2016 • Category: Feature Story

leading-edge-aker

Photo: Kris Kathmann

Crop Spies

Aker’s proprietary software pairs with cutting-edge autonomous aerial drones to deliver precision field data and analysis.

There is a new farming tool buzzing around the skies of southern Minnesota. A tool that gives farmers a whole new perspective on the growing season. A tool that can help farmers protect crops on the ground from up above. The cutting-edge technology of drones was in limited use just a few years ago, but today unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are becoming routine in a variety of industries, at the forefront is farming.

For a farmer who cash crops corn, soybeans, or perhaps another crop, keeping the plants healthy throughout the growing season is of prime importance. As farms have grown larger, walking the fields to look for problem areas–checking thousands of acres visually–has become impossible. This new technology eliminates that method and can quickly pinpoint problem areas, so farmers can get advice from an agronomist before damage is done. It’s technology that is being developed and put to use above the prairies of Faribault County and even beyond, courtesy of  Winnebago-based Leading Edge Technologies, recently renamed Aker. The company is now piloted by two seemingly unlikely partners; Blue Earth area farmer Todd Golly, who is also an agricultural engineer, and his technology and business partner Dominican Republic-native Orlando Saez.

The business occupies a former convenience store location at 618 Main Street South in Winnebago, where the not-so-busy U.S. Highway 169 crosses an even quieter Minnesota Highway 109. Originally, the building housed the company’s retail site for sales of drones. For several years, Leading Edge Technologies has offered UAVs to farmers and ag-related businesses who want a bird’s-eye view of fields. But recently the company changed that retail sales model to a more service-oriented one. Finding that customers prefer not to do it themselves, but leave it to trained professionals.

One reason for that is the high-tech UAVs are not typical radio-controlled model airplanes. No one stands on the ground, using a radio control unit to pilot the UAV.

Golly explains, “It’s all done with a computer, which operates the entire flight of the plane. The flight plan is preloaded into the computer program and controls the takeoff, the mission and the landing. We tell the UAV where and how high to fly, how many passes to make and where to land. A UAV can scan more than 1,000 acres in a day, taking just 20 minutes to cover 160 acres. It provides hundreds of images that are relayed to a computer. It would take a person an entire day to walk those same 160 acres, and the person wouldn’t see everything the UAV sees. It gives immediate feedback and can create a 3-D topography map of the area.”


When it became evident to Golly that the market in providing UAV service was greater than potential sales of the drones, he shifted his focus from retail sales to service. Enter the change to Aker. Aker’s service does not require upfront costs, and it relies on its sophisticated image processing and base agronomy, led by regional agronomy partners, for interpretation into a directed-scouting mobile app to quickly find high-risk zones. The farmer, or a specialist from an agricultural co-op or University of Minnesota Extension office, can then walk or “scout” the specific area of the field where there is a high likelihood of field issues, rather than making random walks through the field. Aker is training about 20 pilots this season to cover Minnesota and Iowa, flying their fleet of SenseFly eBee UAVs at least three times per field during the growth season. Beyond reporting plant health, the service can provide plant population analysis, topography, drainage assessment, residue variability, equipment audit, and crop loss assessment, as well as provide prescription maps for unwanted vegetation. Aker is the only innovative service provider carrying a “three-day for results” guarantee.

Aker now employs four people full time, a summer intern and 8-12 contracted flight team members (pilots and visual observers), most from the Minnesota State University-Mankato aviation program. Whereas Golly originally advertised on area radio stations and in farm magazines, he now has hired a sales representative who visits agricultural retailers to acquaint them with what Aker offers. Golly explains, “Farmers work through their agronomists and farm retailers.”

Agriculture seems to be in Golly’s DNA. The son of educators who took up farming, he grew up on a corn and soybean operation that now measures 6,000 acres. His off-farm job while in high school was working the night shift at the Green Giant corn pack in Blue Earth. But he has always been smitten with technology. Math and science were his favorite subjects at Blue Earth Area High School.

After earning an agriculture technology degree from the University of Minnesota, he worked as a consultant to the University of Minnesota Precision Agriculture Center. His eagerness to apply his education and experience to the family farm led him to return to full-time farming 20 years ago. Despite being involved in both ag-tech businesses, Golly still spends much of spring and fall working alongside his father and his brother Tim, an aerospace engineer, who dedicates his vacation time to farming.

“We have always used a lot of technology on the farm,” Golly said.  “In using the drones ourselves, I saw there would be a great potential for them in agriculture. Leading Edge Technologies was my first off-farm business venture.” Its co-founder and part owner, Bob Weerts, is a Winnebago entrepreneur involved in many local business operations. (Look online for Connect Business Magazine’s January 2000 cover story on Weerts).

Golly continued, “We are unique in bringing technology to agriculture in a traditional way because we’re not trying to change farmers’ habits, just supplying them with tools to use. We’re not changing the complex relationships in agriculture among farmers, co-ops, county extension officials and seed dealers.”

Golly’s change of direction from sales to service coincided with his contact by Saez, who was looking for a way to make students in his native country, the Dominican Republic, enthusiastic about science. Because the country has only two industries–tourism and agriculture–Saez wanted to provide an agriculture-based science project that would make an impression on high school and college students. To complement his own credentials, he searched online for an expert with the skill sets he was seeking.

“I wanted to do a drone project in agriculture and was looking for an ag drone expert,” Saez explained. “I found Todd, who understands both technology and agriculture, and I phoned him.”

Golly picks up the story: “Orlando asked me and Eric (flight operations manager Eric Johnson) to go with him to the Dominican Republic. It was winter (2014-15) here, so we said, ‘Sure!’ We carried two drones onto a commercial airliner and flew to the capital city of Santo Domingo. From there we drove one to one-and-a-half hours in a rental car part way across the country. It’s a small country. We went to two schools and flew the drones for professors, researchers and students. We also flew drones over sweet corn fields, avocado orchards and mango orchards. Then we returned to Minnesota.”

The adventure continued with a second trip a few months later. Golly and Saez delivered data the UAVs had gathered, made presentations to professors and researchers and developed at least one long-term relationship with a student.

“One of the kids continues to email and text me,” Golly said. “He’s 14 or 15 now. He’s following Orlando’s advice and taking more English classes. His goal is to fly UAVs commercially.”

Saez explains his motivation, “I came from very humble beginnings, and I wanted to give back (to my community) what had inspired me to become an engineer. When I was a child, I was playing a pinball machine, and when I ran out of money I went to the Radio Shack next door. The manager gave me a book to read on basic computer programming.

“What motivates me is to have kids become producers of technology, not consumers of it,” he says. “UAVs are visibly cool, and this can inspire a new generation to play and learn. I needed to connect this new technology with agriculture. I learned about Leading Edge Technologies on the internet. After a few calls with Todd and Eric, I became convinced that they knew about UAV technology and agriculture, so I visited Winnebago. I made several trips to Golly Farms, and Todd and Erik came along on several trips to the Dominican Republic. After making several trips, and getting to know the team better, I decided to become involved in the business.”

For Saez, Winnebago offers a perspective considerably different from his other business ventures and his residence in downtown Chicago. He spends work days in Winnebago and makes his home in Blue Earth during the week. He said, “My girlfriend has been here several times, and we both enjoy the urban and rural contrast in our lives.”

When Saez bought into Aker, he became its chief executive officer and initiated the rebranding into Aker. He has been quick to develop and invest in the community and has met with several economic development leaders to understand the community and how the Aker expansion will impact the community. The company is in discussions with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation to expand a partnership for local collaboration.

Saez said, “I’m excited to amplify Todd’s agriculture knowledge with my technology background for innovations in precision agriculture. We have a fantastic team, and Winnebago has some of the best talent in large row crop farming anywhere in the country. We plan to recruit and train about 20 interns this summer for UAV flight and scouting operations. Once we establish roots in the region, we will be expanding into southern states and to Latin America.“

As of May, Aker had garnered interest from seven “angel” investors from the Midwest. The company seeks to close a $1.5 million investment round, and already has a large corporate venture and several potential institutional investors. Regardless of expansion, Saez vows that Winnebago will remain the key market for developing new products and services, hence, his interest in engaging the local business community and universities.

Aker software provides detailed field maps pinpointing problem areas.

Aker software provides detailed field maps pinpointing problem areas.

As for the cutting-edge technology, Saez said, “We want to build a trusted and relevant way to help growers understand what is happening to their crops in season--in real time–to keep plants healthy. Disease and illness are limiting factors in the crop, and we want to help the farmer do something about it. We’re like a radiologist taking X-rays and empowering our retail partners.”

Golly added, “As of May, there was no software on the market that provides all of the services such as imagery, smart scouting and financial impact, that Aker provides. Our goal is to ensure we can launch a successful service regionally this year and rapidly expand nationally and internationally in a few years.”

While the company continues to resell equipment, Golly and Saez are betting big on their recent service model of UAV technology under the Aker banner, a service created in response to customers who prefer not to “do it yourself.” Aker provides precision crop monitoring technology primarily to retailers and agricultural consultants who want to foster stronger relationships with their growers. The company also offers a precision weather monitoring system applicable to agriculture and industry, grain management systems and “ruggedized” laptops, which are suitable for flying UAVs.


Todd Golly — Just The Facts

What would you like to have studied? I would like to have more general business education.

Tell about your family. My wife, Mindy, is a homemaker. We have two children, Thomas, age 10, and Giselle, who is four. She loves to farm, to be with Grandpa and Dad in the tractor. Both children enjoy math and science.

What do you do for relaxation? I love sitting in the combine. I also enjoy hanging out with my family, and I play basketball twice a week as stress release.

Of what accomplishment are you most proud? I’m proud of maintaining the family farm and the family’s success, whether it’s the farm or the business.

What possession do you value most?
The farm itself.

What intangible? I’m grateful for my own family’s support. They support the time I take for the business because they know it’s for a better future.

Three words that describe you:
Quiet, intelligent and loyal.

If you weren’t involved in Leading Edge Technologies and Aker: I’d be farming full time.

A Drone’s-Eye View of Orlando Saez

Orlando Saez, co-founder and CEO of Aker, describes his early life as “humble.” His parents are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Saez got his high school education in Puerto Rico and studied computer engineering at the University of Puerto Rico. Since his sophomore year at the university, he worked full time to support his education and his family, while carrying a full class load. He credits these years of tough discipline as being important for his development of determination and a work ethic.

Saez holds a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, a Masters degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a Master of Business Administration from the IIT Stuart Graduate School of Business.

Saez is the president of Saez Brunner Capital Group, a strategic infrastructure investment company. He has led several early stage companies with a combined exit valuation of $50 million, including Boingo Wireless, the largest WiFi hotspot in the world. He held several software engineering and product management roles at Motorola and AT&T Bell Laboratories. He was the CEO of CityScan and was the director of the Office of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology for the State of Illinois, where he led a $20 million early stage venture fund.

Saez’s involvement in civic and professional organizations includes the Economic Club of Chicago, the Illinois Innovation Council, Chicago TechStars, Chicago Innovations Awards, the ASPIRA of Illinois Charter School (committed to self-determination of Latinos and other underserved youth), and 50 Startups, a global early-stage startup accelerator and fund.

Experts Weigh In On UAVs

“UAVs can give you information you just aren’t going to get otherwise,” says Brad Carlson, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator in the Mankato Regional Office. “The university has been using them for more than a decade, and they have been used commercially for about five years. The UAV has the chance to reach some places difficult to reach on foot, and it reaches them quickly. You get a much more precise picture of crops than from satellite imagery, which is very coarse. And a UAV isn‘t affected by cloudiness, while satellites are.”

The key to using UAVs is, of course, interpretation of the images. Carlson explains, “The big thing is being able to identify problems before damage occurs to the crop, being able to catch a problem prior to it causing yield damage.”

Randy Main, agronomy manager at the Farmers Co-op Association in Winnebago, agrees. He admitted that a year or two ago, he was skeptical about the value UAVs would bring to the producer, but this year he began a program contracting with Aker for UAV services and encouraging crop producers to take part.

Main said, “The gentlemen running the company understand what producers need. Now, with the technology of the imagery UAVs can collect, we’re able to collect information that will bring value to the crop producer–plant health, designating problem spots in the field, and then the co-op agronomist coming up with a solution to the problem. I recommend to co-op members who cash crop to have a UAV fly over their fields at least three times over the growing season.”

THE ESSENTIALS:

Aker/Leading Edge Technologies

Phone: (507) 893-4545
Address: 618 South Main Street, Winnebago, Minnesota
Web: aker.ag and dronesforag.com

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A freelance writer and college instructor from Mankato.


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