Saving lives and money: The rise of automated crop-spraying

Deep Dive

Flying is one of the safest things you can do, right? Well not when it comes to agriculture. In 2020, there were 54 accidents, including one midair collision, and 12 fatal accidents with 13 deaths across the US.

Whilst commercial aviation has improved its accident rate by 80% in the past decade, this is not the case for agriculture. The low altitude flying required for crop spraying caused an average of five accidents per month in the US alone. Fatalities due to stalls, pressure from farmers, fatigue and power line collisions are not uncommon.

Logic would dictate that taking the pilot out of the aircraft is the safest way forward. There are a number of companies working on this solution, including Pyka and Moya Aero. Both are developing highly automated uncrewed aircraft for the agricultural industry, focused primarily on crop spraying and inputs transport.

“In the US midwestern region where there is a lot of crop spraying, there is about one fatality per month in conventional agricultural aerial applications,” Volker Fabian, chief commercial officer at Pyka told us. “Simply by the fact that the mission itself is very dangerous, you’re flying very low and you have to contend with obstacles in the area. Power lines are a particular danger.

“Making the application safer, cleaner and more cost effective than conventional aircraft is what we are aiming for.”

Brazil, as a global agricultural hub and where Moya Aero is based, is a similar story to the US in terms of accidents involving crop-spraying aircraft. According to research carried out by Agência Nacional de Aviação Civil (ANAC), despite the evolution of aircraft, application systems and training required by law there are still a high number of agricultural aviation accidents in the country (more than 30 per year on average).

Navigating these risks and staying profitable requires farmers to disrupt tradition and embrace innovative solutions where possible. Foremost of those solutions is automation, which is being integrated to varying degrees across farms globally. It promises to reduce workload and climate impact whilst also identifying best approaches to remaining in the green (paper money and healthy crops). It is all about doing more with less and using technological advancements wherever possible to assist this premise.

As well as saving the lives of crop-spraying pilots and freeing them to fly less intensive missions over more suitable terrain (i.e. long fields with minimal turns), there are also significantly fewer emissions and lower running costs using uncrewed aircraft. This is just as well given that farmers have reported global increases in agriculture input costs by as much as 250% in recent years.

What are the savings?

US-based startup Pyka is developing and certifying an all-electric, short take-off, uncrewed aircraft it calls Pelican Spray. The platform is the largest ever uncrewed aerial system (UAS) to be authorised by the FAA for commercial operation in the US. Received in August last year, the authorisation permits Pyka to operate under FAA exemption 44807 and builds on previous permissions to fly in Costa Rica, Brazil and Honduras.

Adoption rates of automated technology are still quite low amongst farmers worldwide (around 5% are using some form of automated hardware, according to McKinsey’s 2022 Farmers Global Insights Survey). So what are the benefits of adopting technology like Pyka’s?

A typical turbine-driven crop duster should be capable of covering about 420 hectares per hour carrying up to 800 gallons of pesticide. These aircraft travel at around 220kph with a spray width of 20m. However, there are a range of variable costs that can make this process more costly and less efficient – these can be as high as $10-$15 per minute.

Firstly, it pays to have an airstrip nearby – if there is no runway within 10km of the spraying area it might mean a farmer is already losing money to spray the crops. Even with a runway close by, the aircraft does not spend all its time spraying. It must travel to the field, fly around and work out the map, spray a run, turn at the end of the field and potentially return to the strip for another load. This means that only about 25% of the flying time is dedicated to spraying, bringing the area covered down to about 108 hectares per hour.

Pyka’s aircraft, which is not dissimilar in size to a crop duster, has a maximum payload of 540 lbs (70 gallons) and with its 18m spray width can cover up to 97 hectares per hour. Although its batteries mean it can only operate for 35 minutes at a time with a 10-minute reserve, the aircraft only requires a 250m runway and its fixed and variable costs work out much lower than its fossil fuel-powered counterparts. Pyka estimates maintenance costs of about $14.50 per flight hour, with a battery replacement every 2,000 flight hours.

“There is very little maintenance to be done compared with conventional aircraft,” says Fabian. “There are only three rotating parts which are the motors. You have a 50 flight hours maintenance protocol to go through and inspect the parts, but this is much lighter and less intensive than traditional aircraft used in this space.”

A list price has not been disclosed for the Pelican Spray as yet, but if the figures prove out to the real world unit cost – which is currently offered via lease to customers – it could be well north of the average price tag for a crop duster (about $1m) and still remain a cheaper option for farmers in the long run.

Eye on Moya 

It is a similar story for Moya Aero. The Brazilian OEM’s aircraft will have a maximum payload of 42 gallons, with a hybrid-electric propulsion system expected to offer a range of up to 300km (190 miles). It is also working on an all-electric version with a 110km range. The aircraft will be capable of covering an area of 105 hectares per battery cycle (each battery cycle lasts about 42 minutes), which according to manufacturers will produce operating costs at least 50% lower than conventional aircraft. The firm has also published a preliminary list price of $1m per unit, which matches the average price of a conventional crop duster as noted above.

Increased versatility is also a major draw for farmers. Moya’s aircraft, which can take off and land vertically, reaches places where traditional crop dusters cannot operate or would be too expensive. This alleviates any need for farmers to spray from the ground in challenging terrain, such as nearby water courses or on a hillside.

Backed by the Brazilian government, including a $2m grant to build its second prototype aircraft ahead of planned certification in 2026, Alexandre Zaramela, CEO and founder at Moya Aero says this money will cover construction of the aircraft. “When most people hear $2m, they think it sounds crazy, you can’t do anything with that, but in Brazil you can do a lot with the $2m. We are also very fast with the prototyping,” he tells us.

That said, in order to start production and begin selling the aircraft in 2027, the firm is on the verge of beginning a new fundraising round to support development of a production line. The firm estimates needing $20m to complete this. “Sometimes people say to me: ‘Can you really do that for that amount of money?’ To give an idea, the 250kg prototype we are flying right now cost us $300,000 to build. We do almost everything in-house,” says Zaramela.

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