A key complaint about agriculture drones today is the limited range they can cover due to their small payload (carrying) capacity and battery life. But Skyx and AT say they are producing a product that can cover hundreds of acres per day, outpacing over options on the market.
To do so, Skyx will leverage its swarming and variate rate agri-spraying applications while AT will bring its extra-large unmanned drones with high payload capacity to the table.
“The key of this partnership is about doing something that is totally new and bigger compared to anything else available on the market and to target large-scale, industrial farmers who are working with crop dusters and ground sprayers,” Elyon Sorek, founder and CEO at Skyx, recently told AgFunderNews. “It’s not about introducing some gadget or robot to small or medium size growers anymore.”
There are many components to the new partnership and the ultimate product that the team hopes to offer will include Skyx’s variable rate software to apply pesticides precisely where they’re needed. This combines the two main uses of drones in agriculture: acquiring information through imagery and performing tasks such as spraying.
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“In our perspective, for the vast majority of companies today using drones for crop scouting, the drone simply acts as a carrier for the camera. The product produced is information and the information is about what is going on in the crops in terms of plant health, pests or disease,” Sorek explains. “We can turn this information into instant action, specifically spraying. Unlike a traditional crop duster or tractor that travels over the farm and applies pesticide in a uniform way, we can use the information to apply the pesticide where it is needed.”
This translates into more efficient use of inputs and a better long-term environmental impact, he adds. On top of the software’s ability to turn information into actionable insights, Skyx relies on swarming technology to operate a team of crop spraying drones in unison. Although the tech world has been dabbling with drone swarming in applications like entertainment and package delivery, agriculture poses unique challenges. A crop spraying drone must fly close to the ground to ensure that the chemical reaches its intended target. This means that the swarm of drones needs to avoid obstacles and operate with an increased level of precision.
Sorek is not aware of any other company developing swarming technology for crop spraying drones, but to ensure they’re developing a competitive product, Skyx is developing a proprietary communications and computing hardware that will be installed on each drone to allow real-time planning and swarming.
“It’s not just about static planning before you take off and just executing travel between waypoints,” says Sorek. “It’s also simple to use. It doesn’t require a PhD in engineering or understanding a million buttons to operate. For the user, we are providing an autonomous system so that mission planning involves playing with a tablet or sending an automated solution to work by clicking a button.”
On the hardware front, Don Shaw, CEO of AT, has been hard at work developing drones that are capable of carrying impressive payloads.
“The current vehicle can carry a payload of 500kg,” he recently told AgFunderNews comparing that to the 20kg maximum payload he’s heard of from other drones providers. “The drones that we use have aircraft gas engines that manned aircraft currently use. We can fly for 10-times as long as a battery-powered engine or five times as long if you are carrying a heavier payload. Electric just doesn’t do that and it’s more unpredictable.”
Electric vehicles can fly for about 20 minutes and pose a lot of risk, according to Shaw. The industry is recognizing the benefits of using gas engines over electric. AT and Skyx’s increased downflow will enable a more targeted application of pesticide compared to lighter aircrafts that may result in the chemicals blowing away.
As for ease of use, operating these high-powered crop spraying drones is a breeze, according to Shaw.
“It takes a week, maybe, to train people how to use it. I come from a military background and the reason the military likes our transporter is because it is simple to operate and takes minimum training time and maintenance. It’s so simple a car mechanic can work on it,” he adds.
The duo has a clear concept regarding their ideal customer. The technology was designed with a large-scale farmer in mind, the type of farmer who has the knowledge and resources to purchase an advanced solution like the heavy payload swarming drone.
“Another group we are targeting is existing crop dusters that use spraying airplanes. They understand that this is the next thing that they will need to fly,” says Sorek. “Another group that we are targeting is service providers that currently own, regulate, insure, or operate ground sprayers,” says Sorek. “Everyone talks about drones in terms of commercial drones and commercial drone pilots, there are huge amounts of companies that have licenses to build companies based on flying drones.”
The partners also indicate that they are in touch with a few large-scale agrochemical companies, who can provide access to distributors and growers. This will allow them to bundle different types of pesticides that can optimize the drone’s variable rate spraying technology.
Sorek and Shaw identify similar challenges when it comes to taking this technology from proof of concept to commercialization. Both companies are independently seeking funding.
“The current vehicle has been tested, we have flight-proven hardware,” says Shaw. “We need some funding now so we can go to the next step and have the final product, which would be a functioning vehicle. Basically, with a little bit of funding this all happens.”
“It’s not only about finding the right funding, but the right investors and recruiting the right people. One of the exciting things for us is that people in this ecosystem, including crop-dusting pilots, ground sprayers, growers, and agrochemical companies understand perfectly what we are building and why we are building it,” adds Sorek. “So we don’t feel like we need to educate or advocate for our message. We just need to deliver.”