Autonomy is entering agriculture in a range of new ways from tractors to planters to targeted specialty equipment, and starting in 2023, farmers can look to the sky, too. Wilbur-Ellis has announced it is partnering with Guardian Agriculture, a Massachusetts startup, to create a fleet of autonomous aerial application machines to serve farmer-customers.
The Guardian Ag technology offers fully electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) that precisely applies crop protection products not only in general field areas but also hard-to-reach areas. But this is no off-the-shelf drone modified for the task, explains Adam Bercu, co-founder and CEO of Guardian Ag.
“From our perspective, our goal is to make this as much of a drop-in replacement for the farmer as possible,” he says. “The system itself uses standard nozzles and standard pump pressures and standard droplet sizes to deliver product. If [a farmer] has gotten a helicopter application before, from that perspective, it’s going to look exactly the same with the exception that it’s fully digitally controlled.”
This U.S.-built, custom airship can carry up to 200 pounds of material as cargo. The eVTOL machine has four 6-foot propellers and an overall 15-foot aircraft width. The system efficiently covers 40 acres per hour of full-field crop protection to the grower.
Putting tech to work
Willie Negroni, director of sales at Wilbur-Ellis Agribusiness, explains that when in use, the company would come to the farm with the airships to apply product. “When we get the product in our hands, we’re going to use them on the more risky, hard-to-apply and sensitive areas in the Salinas Valley [in California],” he says.
The Salinas Valley is a starting point because of the high-value crops raised there, the challenging terrain for some operations and labor issues posing difficulties for application. But Negroni says Wilbur-Ellis has significant data about the terrain in the region, which is more than field boundary maps.
“We’ve got obstacles mapped, including power lines, trees and other obstructions,” he says. “We’ve got that all mapped so we can allow use of this type of technology.”
Bercu adds that the eVTOL applicators have some other key features. “We did a lot of work upfront to make these day or night agnostic, because we’re really looking forward to nighttime applications for worker safety benefits, or pollinator protection benefits and lower winds,” he says.
This autonomous spraying system still needs to be tendered because “you’re not making money unless nozzles are spraying,” Bercu says.
And to cover more acres, the Guardian Ag system is designed to operate with more than one airship in the field. This is an approach some companies call a “swarm,” which involves machines knowing their position relative to other machines to cover the territory.
The system has in-flight monitoring, measurement and data collection capabilities. Application variables are collected in real time, including wind speed, temperature, obstructions and more. Coupled with flight plans, designated spray boundaries and spray rates, the Guardian system can reduce application errors.
The Wilbur-Ellis application system business covers about 5 million acres annually. The eVTOL system will support the company’s strong aerial operations, adding to the current helicopter and fixed-wing fleets.
Negroni says the plan would be for Wilbur-Ellis to have multiple eVTOL machines on a trailer to cover a field. “One of the biggest drawbacks with other entries in the market is they don’t cover the amount of acres fast enough to meet grower expectations,” he says. “We’re happy to work with Guardian because they can carry the payload and have the ability to swarm to cover more acres.”
Approval in works
The Guardian Ag investment involves not only developing the eVTOL machine to meet specific application needs, which the partnership with Wilbur-Ellis has helped guide, but also working on the regulatory side. These are large machines lifting 200 pounds of material into the air to be sprayed.
“All our aircraft have tail numbers; they are all registered,” Bercu says. “We’re proud of all the regulatory progress we’ve made, and we’ve worked well with the [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] in getting our special airworthiness certificates through all the exemptions we need to operate in national air space.”
There’s another potential driver for the Guardian Ag technology. “Because of the pilot shortages across the country, the FAA recognizes that the American public and growers need supplemental supply in aerial application technology,” Bercu says.
With about six months left, the firm is confident it will be ready to apply crop protection products in the Salinas Valley in 2023. Beyond that, Wilbur-Ellis is looking at other markets.
In describing the system and how it will work, Bercu doesn’t talk about optimizing flight time and cargo size. “If you optimize instead for acres per hour, you actually want the shortest flight times and you don’t really care about endurance,” he explains. “You care more about reducing ground time with supercharging.”
The system will be designed for a quick turnaround of airships as they cover acres. That 200-pound capacity, or 20 gallons of product, can be applied quickly. The airship returns for refilling and quick charging, and then it’s back in the sky. The system includes a ground station supercharger and software generating domestically stored data.
As for growth beyond Salinas Valley? Negroni says, at first, high-value crops will be the target for this system. Timely crop protection applications are key to those crops and offers the highest payback. But this can include high-value crops in diverse areas, which means, in coming seasons, these machines could be deployed in more parts of the country.
The technology could represent a step change in crop protection application, providing whole-field coverage in a timely, precise manner. You can learn more about the eVTOL machine at guardian.ag. Learn more about Wilbur-Ellis at wilburellis.com.