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  • Dusty Sonnenberg

How Hylio is Adapting Drones for the Future of Agriculture

On January 8th, 2015, Arthur Erickson and a couple of friends and college roommates at the

University of Texas at Austin wanted to revolutionize industries with drone technology. It was then that Hylio was officially incorporated.

“We wanted to make a really robust and easy-to-use drone platform that could be used for agriculture and also things like cargo delivery, media and security,” said Arthur Erickson, CEO and Co-founder of Hylio. “We started with a broad industry approach.”

As an aerospace engineering student, Erickson studied drones and was very familiar with the technology. One challenge to the adoption of the technology he detected was that they were not being properly commercialized at that time. Hylio’s initial attack was a shotgun approach, but over time they refined their scope. “In 2017 we made the decision to go fully into agriculture,” said Erickson. “For the past 5 years, we have been completely agriculture focused. There are four co-founders of Hylio and we have a wide variety of backgrounds. Our Chief Operations Officer actually grew up in Texas and spent a lot of time on his family farm and then studied aerospace engineering with me at UT Austin. Our office is based on a ranch in Texas.” Hylio drones are made in-house with American-made parts as much as possible. Things like batteries are outsourced, but most everything else is fabricated and made in Texas.

Hylio technology has a great deal of flexibility in its applications. “Our goal is to allow a lot of flexibility and not lock anyone out of the scouting technology they already had,” said Erickson. “As an example, if a farmer has satellite imagery or maps from another technology like John Deere, those can be pulled into the program, and they can spot spray or prescription apply with that data. They can also use our cameras to collect and generate data. We designed it so that however they prefer to get the data, it is going to work.”

Hylio manufactures several models of multi-rotor drones. Hylio’s Agrosol software is designed to seamlessly take information from the planning phase all the way through crop treatment and after-application data reporting. The software includes features allowing for swarm control, it is equipped with obstacle avoidance. It is fully autonomous and uses radar altimetry with no remote control required. The software has an intuitive planning design and allows for spot spraying and creating as applied maps.

“Our platform is primarily designed to preplan from a season-long perspective. A farmer will map all the field parameters ahead of time and then can be much more efficient when they actually go out to the field,” said Erickson.

Agriculture drones have many uses. “Overwhelmingly our drones are being used for liquid chemical application,” said Erickson. “Fungicide application is the most popular, followed closely by general herbicide application, and then micronutrient application.”

Swarm technology allows multiple drones to function in unison and cover a larger area much more efficiently. “Swarming is one of the calling cards of our technology,” said Erickson. “We have had swarming technology that works well robustly since about 2017 and is definitely something that helps us stand apart from some of our competitors. You can easily fly up to four drones from one of our ground stations (laptops).” According to the FAA, drone swarm flying is legal however for any drone over 55 pounds, each drone must have a physical observer on site. “This is not a technology limitation, but a regulatory statute at this time. The technology is there to swarm easily with just one physical operator,” said Erickson. “If the drones are under 55 pounds, then it is legal to fly multiple drones with just one operator.”

Efficiency is often based on the application and field size. “Often the battery and payload capacity go hand in hand,” said Erickson. “A farmer will oftentimes run out of payload before you run out of battery power. It depends on a lot of factors. The amount of payload the drone has to ferry back and forth has an impact on the battery life. It is possible to get two payloads on one battery charge, but it just depends on the field size, payload and application.”

Erickson encourages farmers to have a game plan for their drones and get as much information as possible. “Oftentimes farmers have a lot of misinformation. They see a great marketing video and think that a drone can do everything,” said Erickson. “A drone is not going to apply heavy N, P, and K fertilizers pre-season in large amounts. As a consumer, a farmer needs to think about what is feasible for a drone to do, such as apply fungicides at low rates or spot applications, and then plan accordingly.”

Erickson sees a majority of their drones being used in row crop production. “When we started, I thought we would see a majority of our drones being used in high-value specialty crop production. That has not been the case,” said Erickson. “We are seeing almost 80% of our drones going to row crop production and used as a tool, possibly replacing aerial application when planes are not available on a timely schedule.”

The granular spreader device attachments are still being refined. “Dry product applications are definitely possible,” said Erickson. “Fertilizers are typically too heavy for drones. For seeding of cover crops or small seeded crops, it is attractive. Refining the seeding rates to low levels is still being researched. The seeding rates are still often on the heavy side for efficient drone use, but the capabilities are definitely there.”

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