Wired In: Brian Sutton

Wired In: Brian Sutton

Each week, Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet BRIAN SUTTON. whose AirScout is one of the newest additions to the University of Illinois Research Park in Champaign. The farmer, pilot and inventor describes himself as "just a farmer who was looking for a better way to use all this precision ag gadgetry, and ended up starting a business."

Tell us about your agricultural aerial tool, AirScout Thermal Imagery.

Thermal imagery really changed things for me, and revealed characteristics about my farm that I never knew existed. This all began because I was on a quest to get good zones that I could use for prescription planting maps or nitrogen management. I experimented with "plant health" from various satellite and aerial providers for many years, and could not find the value on our farm. Thermal completes the picture! It puts everything into context so I can create zones that make my farm more profitable.

You learned to fly at age 13? How did that come about?

My dad was a private pilot and loves aviation. When I turned 13, Dad gave me the same opportunity. As a kid growing up on our farm playing with go-karts and mini-bikes, I thought that an airplane was the greatest all-terrain vehicle ever, and all I could think about was when I could go flying again. I took that love and turned it into a career as an airline pilot, and turned my interest in improving aircraft into a business of propeller upgrades for Alaskan bush planes. All these skills and experiences proved useful in starting AirScout.

Did this develop from your interest in flying? How long have you been a farmer?

Absolutely! I have been a farmer all of my life. I am the fifth generation on our family farm that was established in 1862. Some of my earliest memories are riding around in the combine with my dad. On my first flying lesson, I couldn't believe how different things looked from the air. It didn't take long before I began thinking of ways to use this new found perspective to change the way we farm.

AirScout Inc. puts agronomic diagnostic and prescription tools in the hands of farmers and agronomists. What are some of the services?

We have a prescription building software that can take any field-image and break it into zones. You can then assign a "rate" to each of these zones, and export it to your equipment. We also have software for a new kind of Yield Estimator, drone platform and ground scouting app. All of these are free with our imagery subscription and allow growers to build prescription maps for planting, nitrogen, irrigation, fungicide, harvest priority and drainage. We are currently working on a way to use it to selectively apply a growth regulator in soybeans. Simply using what we have in new ways that lead to concrete improvements on our farm is what makes it fun for me. I don't think we have scratched the surface of what AirScout can do yet.

You noticed that when a corn crop is most vulnerable to problems, it's also the toughest to ground scout for problems. What is the advantage of aerial scouting?

It's really a "forest through the trees" issue. Sometimes when you are right on top of something, it is not as apparent as when you back away and get the big picture. By using thermal imagery, you can easily recognize areas that stand out from the rest of the field. This view from above then guides us on the ground when we go for a closer look with a drone or by foot with GPS.

AirScout features advanced thermal imaging that measures variations in plant temperatures. Does this allow farmers to see where pest and disease problems are just beginning to break out?

Yes, warm spots show up clearly on thermal images wherever plant respiration decreases. There are some patterns that give us clues as to what is happening, but I want to make it clear that this is a tool for a crop scout, not a replacement.

AirScout helps producers shift from reactive crop management mode to proactive crop management, where you solve problems when they first appear, before real damage is done. How large is the window here?

Depends on the problem. Some diseases such as gray leaf spot tend to come on very slow, while other blights come on very fast. With nitrogen, we anticipate the needs depending on a growth signature that becomes noticeable at V8 for corn, but we don't normally react by adding more fertilizer until about pollination. It's all part of our nitrogen program that maximizes efficiency, yet minimizes run-off into our nations rivers and streams.

Do you have any patents?

Yes, patents are a great way to protect our business advantage and build value in our products. We have one issued, and two more are pending.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I think it pretty much just happened out of my nature of wanting to share what I've learned with others. Starting AirScout was an avenue to make that happen.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

My grandpa used to tell me to find something that I really liked to do, and then see if I could find a way to make a living at it. I think any successful start-up needs to have a passion for WHY they are doing something. If the answer is money, you probably need to do some more soul searching.

Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?

I don't even know where to start with that one. Sometimes I think I might be the king of mistakes. I have a whole bushel basket of failed cameras, sensors, filters, lenses and other things that I'll sell really cheap. That being said, I learned something from every one of those failures, and they have enabled me to continue to grow in more ways than one.

TECH TIDBITS ... from BRIAN SUTTON

Twitter handle, or Facebook or LinkedIn if you prefer: Twitter: @airscoutinc

Favorite app: Weather Channel

On Facebook I follow: Mostly just friends and family.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Books. I'm ashamed to say that I'm not a big reader, but reading the Bible from cover to cover is my goal now.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Does a wristwatch count?