Watkins, Minn. - Land O'Lakes is hosting an international competition in rural Minnesota this week, but the competitors aren't milking cows or making butter, they're flying drones.
Three teams of finalists have come from Massachusetts, North Carolina and Australia for a chance to win up to $140,000 in prize money.
"We're both grad students so the funding source is quite small for us," said Corbin Kling, who is part of the Sandhill Robotics team from North Carolina. "We want to make sure we have a bird that's taken home in one piece."
Though many farmers are turning to drones to help monitor their fields, the prototypes competing for the Land O'Lakes prize are doing more than capturing photos and video. They are collecting multi-spectral images of crops.
"So they can look at plant health, plant stress, and we can see things beyond the visible spectrum of light," said Joel Wipperfurth with WinField United.
The drones are also judged on their ability to collect data and fly without human control.
"We are completely hands off right now and it’s taking pictures, doing its thing by itself,” Kling said.
The shift towards automated drones is key for many farmers like Steven Landwehr, who hosted the competition at his United Dairies farm near Watkins.
“It’s difficult for us, on a daily basis, to have somebody just to go do something like that, versus having something do it by itself,” Landwehr said.
That's exactly what Sandhill Robotics and the other competitors are striving for.
“We’re developing this to be something where you can fly multiple times a week or once a week and kind of keep track of your crops as they grow over time,” Kling said. "The hope is to have a product that we can take to market and start delivering data to growers and to co-ops alike.”
For now, they're competing for a big prize that could help them get their dreams off the ground.
“It's definitely promising," Kling said.
Judges from Land O'Lakes and the University of Minnesota will be putting the teams through a variety of tests and demonstrations throughout the rest of the week before deciding the winner of the Land O'Lakes Prize.
The prize money will vary depending upon the criteria the winning team meets. A final decision will be made in the coming weeks.