Hylio’s Drone Swarms Can Make Precision Agriculture More Efficient and Affordable

“Precision” agriculture – the targeting of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to specific areas of a farm to maximize crop yields –  is a fast-rising commercial drone application.  Drones can spray farm inputs far faster and more efficiently than farm workers operating gas-powered seeders, tractors or crop dusters, sharply reducing operational costs while enhancing sustainability.  But many tradition-bound farmers have resisted transitioning to drone-powered agriculture.  It’s costly on the front-end to purchase an expensive piece of new hardware.  And unless the farmer is planning to become a drone pilot himself – which requires considerable training and testing –  finding and hiring reliable pilots and technicians to maneuver, maintain and store their aircraft can seem unduly burdensome.

There’s also a regulatory barrier: to ensure safety, the FAA requires all farm drones to be supported with ground observers and flight monitors, which balloons their cost of operation still further.  And a single drone relying on a single battery charge for power can only cover so much farm land.  In the end, while a drone is far cheaper than a tractor – by a factor of 8-10, in fact – the cost and logistical burdens associated with acquiring and using one can make the drone option seem prohibitive compared to more conventional means.

Texas drone maker Hylio claims to have a solution to this problem:  The company just won a coveted FAA exemption to allow operators of its patented UAV to fly multiple aircraft concurrently – as part of a drone “swarm.”  In a larger group with enhanced battery power,  Hylio drones can cover huge farm tracts with payloads that make them more competitive with farm tractors and dusters, officials say.  And under the new FAA guidelines, farm owners can reduce their drone personnel to just the remote pilot and a spotter.

Andy Kreikemeier, a Nebraska farmer interviewed by Fox News Digital said he used to use three personnel to watch over and maintain the operation of a single spray drone, which required frequent recharging in the field.  Now, he can use just two personnel to manage three large 55-pound drones that can cover his entire field, greatly reducing his average fuel, water and manpower costs.

“Now we can run three drones with two people with this exemption,” Kreikemeier says. “So, not only are we increasing our coverage time frame by using three drones, but we’re lessening the time and the amount of people we have to have on site.”

With another pilot and another tracker, Kreikemeir says he could run a larger fleet of six drones and cover even more ground faster, further reducing his operational costs.

Hylio custom builds an array of farm drones of varying weights and payload capacities tailored to different farm sizes and user needs.  Its smallest standard model carries 2.5 gallons of liquid and covers 1.5 acres per hour; its largest carries 18 gallons at a rate of 50 acres per hour.  In swarms, the coverage increases exponentially.

The company, founded in 2015, operates in Central America, Colombia and Ghana, in addition to the US and Canada.

Arthur Erickson, Hylio’s CEO, says his company’s drones also have multiple uses beyond precision agriculture.  Some have also been used for reforestation – to drop tree seeds in areas scorched by wildfires.  In addition, some aquatic farmers have used them to seed their water with clams.

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