The federal government has passed legislation that prohibits government entities, government funded organizations, and private contractors that service the government. contracts from purchasing/using Chinese-made drones

How a Government Drone Blacklist Could Impact Farms
How a Government Drone Blacklist Could Impact Farms

Q&A with Arthur Erickson, CEO and co-founder | Hylio

Tell us about yourself and your organization.

My name is Arthur Erickson. I am the CEO and one of the co-founders of Hylio. Hylio is an agricultural technology company that designs, manufactures, and offers UAS (unmanned aerial systems) for precision crop treatment applications.


Currently, how are spray drones being used in agricultural applications?

Spray drones are used primarily in two ways:

1) Replacing existing spray methods for 1:1 coverage. Meaning: instead of treating their crops with owned or hired tractors, planes, or helicopters, users will deploy Hylio spray drones to treat their entire field in order to achieve more reliable, efficient, and efficacious results. On a per acre basis their operating costs will be significantly lower versus traditional methods and they will see yield boosts from the increased precision and deposition characteristics of the application via drones.

2) Users will deploy Hylio spray drones to selectively target and treat problem areas on their crops. Instead of spraying every acre of their crops, farmers can only target the areas that specifically have weeds, fungus, etc. This allows them to save time and money and reduce the amount of chemicals they are inputting to their farmland (less chemicals = better for the environment).


Explain the benefits of spray drones compared to traditional farm equipment like tractors?

Cost savings:

  • Initial capital cost is typically 50-60% cheaper for a drone fleet of equivalent productivity to a tractor sprayer 
  • recurring operating costs are usually 70-75% cheaper with the drones vs. traditional equipment

Precision

  • drones can spot spray just the problem areas in your field; traditional equipment is not precise enough to do so
  • precision spraying saves time and money by reducing the operation time and reducing the amount of chemical inputs you have to put into your crop to achieve protection/yield boost

Flexible Operations

  • drones are able to spray in in rainy/muddy conditions; tractors cannot
  • drones are able to spray areas with difficult geometry, obstacles, and/or slope; traditional methods cannot


What should farmers consider about the manufacturer, technology, etc. when considering investing in a spray drone?

Farmers need to understand that this is not simply buying a drone; the accompanying software and after-sales customer support is as important, if not moreso. The hardware itself is just one piece of the puzzle. There are many Chinese-made spray drones on the market (DJI, for example), that may offer initially cheaper drones than an American manufacturer like Hylio does, but they are known for having very weak after-sales support and buggy software. Between the glitches and repair/maintenance issues you have with cheaper brands, your ROI begins to quickly suffer. With a manufacturer like Hylio you may be paying 25% more up-front but we'll ensure that we maximize your up-time and productivity with our drones so you crank out as many acres as possible, year after year. We pride ourselves on having not only reliable and effective hardware, but also intuitive, user-friendly software and top-class customer support. Not all drone companies are created equal in terms of delivering a total package that actually delivers lifetime value to your operation.


What do you see as the biggest challenges a farmer faces in implementing a spray drone?

One issue many farmers run into is simply a matter of breaking habits. By that I mean they need to learn to not apply habits and methods from traditional applications to the drones. For example: many farmers are accustomed to spraying at 10-15 gallon/acre rates with their tractors so they feel as if the drones must utilize the same rates to be effective; in reality, we have found that the drones are just as effective as the tractors when spraying 10-20% of the volume per acre. A chemical product that a tractor would require 10 gallons/acre to apply effectively can be sprayed at 1-2 gallons/acre with the drone. Farmers need to overcome these preconceived notions in order to deploy the drones optimally.


Tell us about the government policy in the US that is blacklisting China-based DJI Technology.

We as the general public don't know all of the details, of course, but the U.S. govt. (specifically the Dept. of Defense) has identified DJI and their products as a national security threat. Subsequently, the federal government has passed legislation that prohibits government entities, government funded organizations, and private contractors that service the government. contracts from purchasing/using Chinese-made drones (including, most prominently, DJI). Many in the drone industry consider this to be a fairly significant step made by the federal government, there is precedent to suggest that this government ban is something that will soon extend to the private sector as well. Huawei is one such example in recent years; their products were also banned at the government level first and subsequently they were prohibited from establishing business in the private sector of the US as well.


What should farmers know about the DJI blacklisting and could this impact the ability of farmers who already own DJI drones to use them?

At the very least this should raise some serious questions about whether or not a farmer should proceed with purchasing a DJI or other Chinese-made drone. On the individual level, farmers must be wary of their data being exposed to various parties; it's hard to say how much that could affect them on the individual level but it's certainly possible that DJI is giving/selling data to parties that don't have Americans' best interests at heart. From a regulatory perspective, we could see a move by the U.S. government to prohibit DJI customers/users from getting the prerequisite licenses needed to legally operate spray drones here in the U.S. 


What do you think the future holds for spray drones in agriculture?

Spray drones will probably get somewhat bigger than they are now in terms of capacity, but more importantly they will become increasingly automated. We (Hylio as a company), and the industry at large, are working towards essentially taking the human completely out of the equation. We are building out systems that automatically refill and recharge the drones and thus at some point in the relatively near future a farmer/operator would simply drop a "hive" of drones off on a property and come back in a few hours/days after its swarm of drones has treated what it needed to. By the time we reach this level of virtually 100% autonomy, spray drones will likely overtake all other farm equipment as the primary machines for crop care. Large, autonomous tractors will still be utilized for the planting, plowing, digging and similar "earth-moving" tasks but virtually all other crop care and scouting tasks can be done with UAS.

 

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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