Dec 4, 2023 - Technology

Drones are the crop-dusters of the future

Guardian's SC1 drone in action.

Guardian's SC1 drone in action. Image: Courtesy of Guardian Agriculture

Forget the low-flying crop-dusting planes of yesteryear — some farmers are now turning to drones to apply pesticides, drop seeds and more.

Why it matters: Crop-dusting is both dangerous and increasingly a lost art, as professional pilots seek safer and better-paying jobs at the airlines and elsewhere.

  • Electric drones are also cleaner and quieter than your typical spray plane or helicopter, some of which still run on leaded gasoline.

Driving the news: Guardian Agriculture, which makes large autonomous eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) drones for agricultural use, has begun commercial operations, Axios is first to report.

  • Four of its drones are spraying crops at farms in California's Salinas Valley — where helicopters, not fixed-wing planes, are more commonly used in spraying operations due to the area's rolling hills.

Details: These aren't the backpack-size drones you may have seen buzzing around your local park.

  • They're about the size of a small tractor, can carry up to 200 lbs. and can cover an area of up to 60 acres per hour.
  • Drones can also be more efficient than old-school crop-dusters, as the necessary chemicals or other payload can be left beside a field and the drone can fly back and forth to refill as needed for a given job, rather than having to return to a runway.

Zoom in: Guardian, which is based in Massachusetts, says it's the first company to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial eVTOL service in the U.S., and has racked up $100 million in customer orders.

  • Yes, but: Other companies and operators have long been using drones for commercial operations, including photography, mapping and infrastructure inspections. The difference, Guardian says, is a matter of vehicle size and design.

The intrigue: Guardian founder and CEO Adam Bercu says that focusing on agricultural operations allowed the company to get FAA approval to begin commercial service well before other eVTOL startups, like Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation, which are pursuing passenger service (as well as cargo and military operations).

  • What they're saying: "Even if our ambitions long term were to move people ... I would still start in agriculture," Bercu says, because it has a "long history of being a wonderful place to cut your teeth and mature the technology."
  • Plus, "when the regulatory agencies and society are ready for many-thousand-pound flying machines to fly over cities and do stuff, do we want to be just kind of a startup that's raised a billion dollars and has a sexy prototype we brought to the Dubai Air Show? Or would we rather say, 'Here's our safety record after moving 50 million tons of industrial cargo commercially in agriculture'?"

The bottom line: "Our mission is to support the American farmer. It's the most real problem that affects the most people that we can handle," Bercu says.

  • "We think we can increase American food security."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that only some spray planes and helicopters run on leaded gasoline.

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