Eye in the sky: How a drone service is able to help Southern Colorado farmers

Tracy Harmon
The Pueblo Chieftain

From helping farmers keep an eye on their crops to capturing video footage for business marketing, Barn Owl Drone Services is working to take flight in Southeastern Colorado. 

The business launched in August 2017 when Jaron Hinkley, his sister Sarah Hinkley and her husband, Brian Stafford, felt obligated to move "back home" to the La Junta area when their grandparents needed help due to medical issues. 

"Jaron has experience working with drones in volumetric measurements in North Carolina. He started looking at the farmers, seeing what they were doing and noticing how hard the work is," Sarah said.

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"Their passion for growing food for us is generations long. But we noticed there were a lot of things that could be done to help out our farmers."

Barn Owl Drones launched in Southern Colorado in 2018

Barn Owl Drone Services launched its drone and robotic services for farmers with the first drone in the air during the growing season of 2018. A fleet of seven drones helps the company’s five employees monitor crops and plant conditions. 

On the robotics end the service uses “owl perches” which are artificial-intelligence supported weather stations, to detect insects and disease. The stations also can measure soil moisture and soil temperatures, to “help our farmers and to help reduce the use of resources like water,” Sarah said. 

In a play on words, the name “Barn Owl Drones” symbolizes the owl as it relates to the company’s work. 

“Owls actually provide a lot of benefit on the farm. They eliminate rodents, can help pollinate, have crazy good vision and are very highly precise, so we decided that bird was going to be what would represent our beneficial applications of this technology,” she said.

With one headquarter office in La Junta, Barn Owl Drones will expand to a second office in Pueblo when Sarah and Stafford move to a new home there at the end of September. They already serve area hemp farmers and chile pepper farmers as well as melon, tomato, onion and pepper farmers from east of Pueblo to La Junta to Swink. 

With hemp farmers the company offers male plant detection and removal. Although the company focuses on farmers, other clients from gravel pits and landfills to feed lots can benefit by having the drones keep tabs on volumes and supplies. 

“If someone else needs a bird in the air we are happy to fly for them,” she said. 

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Sarah Hinkley (left) her husband Brian Stafford (center) and her brother Jaron Hinkley operate Barn Owl Drone Services. They are at a rock quarry using the drone to conduct volumetric measurements.

Some 'angels' helped the business take flight

The business had the help of several supportive agencies throughout the state. 

Colorado State University’s Cooperative Extension office in the Lower Arkansas River Valley assisted by allowing the company to fly their farm fields and figure out how they can help farmers. 

With an initial financial boost from the Greater Colorado Venture Fund, the company founders were told to seek out the help of Mark Madic of Southern Colorado Innovation Link at Pueblo Community College. Madic helped bring the business and a group of local angel investors together.

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Southern Colorado Angels Group is helping the business get off the ground and is gearing up to help other startups and entrepreneurs in Pueblo, said Tim Krebs, spokesman for the group. 

“We formed in late 2020 and are a network of accredited investors that will make private investments into startup companies in Pueblo, El Paso and Fremont counties.  Additionally, we will not only invest, but support local entrepreneurs and help them grow their businesses through our contacts and connections,” Krebs said. 

“We have just been networking like crazy,” Sarah Hinkley said. It has been incredible as we believe networking and funding are equally important. 

"Not only are SoCo Angels willing to provide funding, but they also are more than willing to help with the networking and advice. I have been able to reach out to a few of them and talk through something that’s been on my mind. 

"They’ve been able to help me with that, so I think it is just as vital as fundraising,” she said. 

She said SoCo Angel Brad Rowland, who helps run Fremont County's TechStart in Canon City, has been particularly helpful. The complexities of the business world, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, has forced a lot of businesses to make rapid changes. 

“The more support small business owners can get the better off the whole country will be,” she said. 

Leif Ullman, SoCo Angels manager, said he sees the group as a catalyst, “to spur local employment, fuel the regional economies with tax dollars and increase community pride and character.” 

To find out more about  SoCo Angels go to socoangels.com or email info@socoangels.com. For more on Barn Owl Drones, go to barnowlds.com.

Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business news. She can be reached by email at tharmon@chieftain.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.