The Van Trump Report

Pyka’s Autonomous “Pelican” Crop Spraying Aircraft Moves Closer to U.S. Approval

Oakland, California-based Pyka is one step closer to gaining U.S. regulatory approval for its fully autonomous crop spraying aircraft known as “Pelican.” Pyka has already been flying the fixed-wing aircraft in Latin America, with the Pelican completing the first-ever autonomous aerial application of banana crops in Costa Rica last year. The Pelican crop spraying aircraft has now successfully completed the final stage of flight demonstrations for commercial approval in the U.S.

The Pelican was specifically designed as an aerial application aircraft so is capable of handling complicated flight patterns and complex agricultural operations. The aircraft is equipped with LiDAR-enabled collision and terrain avoidance systems and powered by three electric motors and redundant batteries. Currently, the Pelican has a range of 30 minutes, plus a 10 minute reserve. 

The Pelican can take off with as little as 450 feet of runway and at full capacity can spray up to 130 acres an hour, which the company says is about a fifth of the operating costs of piloted aircraft. The aircraft has a full payload of 700 lbs. and 84 gallons. “The limitation with spraying is more the amount of chemicals the airplane can carry than the endurance,” Mr Fabian says. “Typically, you would have carried out two to three spray missions before you would swap batteries.” The Pelican can also adjust its flow rate and droplet size throughout the flight to maximize application efficiency and precision.

Pyka claims the Pelican can apply its payload more accurately and efficiently than a human pilot. That includes flying at night, when winds are often gentler and pollinators are not active. The airplane also minimizes drift thanks to precise tracking software that lets the airplane spray chemicals at low altitudes and on specific ground tracks, all the while adjusting for crosswind effects.

Interestingly, CEO Michael Norcia founded Pyka with the aim of building autonomous electric passenger aircraft. But Norcia says he realized that the concept is still a decade or two away due to the limitations of current batteries and other technologies. Norcia couldn’t see how to survive without generating any revenue for a decade or more. There was also the regulatory aspect. “Trying to marry all that innovation with the most regulated industry in the world ends up being a challenging relationship.”

Norcia and his cofounders united around the idea of starting with products in lightly regulated, high-margin markets and growing toward our goal of affordable autonomous electric aircraft for passengers. Regulatory in the agriculture space was a lot more straightforward. Norcia says another reason they “fell in love” with crop spraying was the profit potential – over $5 billion is spent per year spraying crops by air.

Norcia says of all crops, bananas offer the company the most fertile environment. Just one variety, the Cavendish, accounts for 99% of the world’s banana exports. Grown in Latin America on vast plantations that are susceptible to getting wiped out by funguses, the 15-foot-tall plants are sprayed aerially on a weekly basis.      

Pyka is a small company still and has only fully manufactured eight planes, with about half of those delivered to customers in Central and South America. Chief Commercial Officer Volker Fabian says, “Our customers in Latin America are large multinational food producers, as well as significant and long-established aerial spraying companies.” Pkya currently only offers its airplanes for lease. Fabian explains, “Given technological advancements, customers will likely want to take advantage of the latest technology following the end of the initial long-term lease.”

The company intends to release a newer model of the Pelican in the U.S. which will have four motors instead of three. The autonomous plane will then provide even better take-off and landing, as well as single engine-out performance. The company is now working with the FAA to advance a 44807 Commercial Exemption that would allow it to expand operations into the U.S.

​​​​​​​The Oakland manufacturer recently closed a $37 million Series A funding round. The company intends to use the funds to advance production of its Pelican aircraft to committed buyers and fund investment in research and development to expand its products into the cargo market. The company is modifying the Pelican design for 200-mile radius cargo operations that can carry up to 400 pounds. Fabian says the company aims to complete one plane per month for the rest of 2022, then increase production to about 25 to 30 airplanes in 2023. Check out a video of the Pelican in action HERE. (Sources: FutureFarming, FlyingMag, TechCrunch)

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