Regulatory hurdles have always been significant for drone companies, including those in the agricultural sector dispensing pesticides and other crop protection substances. At the same time, these technologies are capable of helping farms transition from the ‘spray-and-pray” approach to far more targeted applications, which would ultimately help farm operations cut costs.
It’s a major milestone, then, for LahakX, a California-based startup offering drone swarming and spot-spraying services to farms, to have recently completed its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulatory requirements.
LahakX’s proprietary technologies enable spot-spraying via drones and autonomous drone swarming to boost performance in the field.
Completing the regulatory process has taken the company two years, and CEO and co-founder Eylon Sorek tells AFN that LahakX is now ready to take its drones to the field in Monterey County, California, where it will service leafy greens and strawberries.
‘The last barrier to ramp up the company to full-scale commercial work is in our hands,’ he says of the FAA milestone. ‘We have the team in place, we have the product in place and the pipeline. Now we also have the final thing that is enabling us to work commercially.’
Below, Sorek (ES) discusses his company’s backstory, some of the challenges along the way, and how he sees both the regulatory landscape and the market opportunity for drones in agriculture evolving over the next few years.
AFN: What sets LahakX apart from others in the space?
ES: From a product and technology perspective, the core of our company is two things: swarming and spot spraying. Swarming is not just about taking off or sending a few drones to travel here and there; it’s about planning and auto piloting for a modular fleet. It’s very innovative. Every robot in our fleet can come up with its own weight, speed, payload accuracy.
We are not a drone company in terms of selling drones and we are not a pure service provider, in terms of buying a DJI drone and just operating whatever they developed for us. We have our own infrastructure to plan and to pilot swarms of drones.
Swarming is first and foremost for performance: the more modularity and flexibility you have with the drones, the more work you can do. And obviously, the very first thing that you need to prove is how to do exactly the same things that are being done today, traditionally by other companies, at dramatically lower cost.
There are other benefits, such as saving chemicals and [drones] working at night and having precision agriculture and labor issues. But the very first tough test for companies is just to beat the benchmark. And to beat the benchmark you need to know the performance of your product and the real core values of your products.
For us that was the current payload regulation, accuracy and performance of the drones. We needed to think where is the sweet spot for spraying drones today. Not five years from now, not when the regulation will be different, but right now.
AFN: Describe your current go-to-market strategy and how you got there.
ES: We were interested in crops that get sprayed on a weekly basis all across the year. So it’s kind of a go to market strategy that is based on the crops and the land and the environment and the spraying and the regulatory environment. That brought us to focus on strawberries and leafy green vegetables in in Monterey County [California]. The top 10 crops in Monterey County generate $3.5 billion per year just under the current value. So there is an ocean of land for us to work on
The second thing was deciding if we would go directly to the growers or find some strategic distributor. We took the decision at the beginning to go all the way to the growers and work closely with [them], to learn to listen to prove all of the benefits and the values of our products. This is one of the reasons we needed the [FAA] regulation.
As a company, we’re about going all the way and providing spraying as a service, which is what we do right now. To provide that, we need that direct sale to those leafy green growers.
It took us years to get into this point. It’s a lot more difficult than we thought.
AFN: What were some of the challenges along the way?
ES: In terms of an evolution — and I think the vast majority of companies walk this same path — you start with a vision of focusing almost only on software, because it’s a SaaS business model, and because software is scalable.
Then you make the decision to put in a little bit of hardware, because you need hardware for differentiation and performance. The next thing for us was a crisis: to realize the customers don’t buy technology. They buy what they call ‘ready to go’ or ‘ready to fly’ solutions. This means system integration, which is different engineering than software development or hardware development.
Another challenge was meeting that benchmark traditional spraying already has. As a general number, growers can pay $30 to the acre right now for those leafy greens. We faced the question of being profitable if we did this at $20 or 25. And if we did it $25, [would it be] good enough for the growers to give us a chance?
So our business model is based on the numbers that we know about and what it means for us to provide a service and still be profitable, and if we can find a reasonable gap between our pricing model versus the current benchmark.
I think that in many cases, there are all kinds of added values to innovation that you hope as a startup company will allow you to charge more than the benchmark. I think it’s a horrible mistake — not because there is no value there, but just because there is a benchmark. For us, it was extremely important to get started by being able to beat the existing benchmark on those leafy greens and strawberries.
AFN: What about challenges around drone technology and FAA regulations?
ES: I think that especially in agriculture in general, there are few significant challenges. For us as entrepreneurs, if I can speak in general, you kind of put aside all of the regulatory licenses and approvals because it’s legal, it’s boring, etc. Then you have a lot of energy to raise money to build your product and build your business.
But when you want to generate revenues, when you want to operate commercially with machinery that is doing something that is innovative, suddenly you understand that regulatory approvals are sometimes a hidden or underestimated barrier for companies to make money or to boost revenues.
There is a lot of uncertainty and we respect it because, in [the case of LahakX], we are operating an autonomous fleet of robots with chemicals that take decisions about where to go and what to do. It’s dangerous if something goes wrong for the safety of the workers on the field.
AFN: Anything you’d like to see change about the regulatory process in the future?
ES: Currently there is a very clear bar for 55 pounds, more or less, per drone. If your total takeoff weight is below 55 pounds, you fall into one category of regulations. This is part of something called Part 107, and it’s quite old.
Drones are becoming bigger and ready for commercialization. The first generation of drones were toys. Then there were professional drones for professional photographers. Now there is maybe the next phase of drones that are not just good enough to take photos or videos, but to [deliver] packages or spray, to carry payload between points. And the 55 pounds rule is kind of a barrier that I hope very much will change over time.
When we look on spraying applications, they will require really heavy payload drones — 10s of gallons per acre. But you will fall into a really tough regulatory process on trying to work eventually with a heavier payload drum.
AFN: What’s the next big opportunity for drone tech in ag?
ES: In the past, almost all ag drones focused on taking images to discover pests, diseases, problems in the field, irrigation problems, etc. Those companies were generally trying to do two things.
The first was to answer the question of what’s going on in the field, which is a very interesting question if you can do it cheaply, immediately and at a huge volume in the field.
The second thing, which is slightly harder, is to not just say you have a problem in the field but to also say, ‘I discovered something and here’s some recommendation about things that you can do.’
The current status in the market when it comes to digital agronomy is that growers and pest control advisors generally know what’s going on in the field. But when it comes to doing something about it, it will still use the same old helicopter, tractor, or airplane. You can know that you have different zones in the field, but current machinery and operations mean you have is to spray everything or nothing.
One of the most beautiful applications of autonomous drones and robots is that they turn all this digital agronomy into something actionable. I think this is the next phase that the market is going to work on. This is something that I see as an opportunity in the market: how to turn crop scouting into something physically actionable, not information actionable. This is where I think the autonomous systems are going next in this market.