There are fields of astonishing size in modern agriculture, and spraying these fields efficiently is a serious operational challenge. Pyka takes over the largely human-operated spray business with an autonomous winged vehicle and crucial regulatory approval.
Just like we saw at DroneSeed, this type of flying is risky for pilots who have to fly very close to the ground and other obstacles, but are also very vulnerable to automation. This is because there are many repeating flight patterns that have to be carried out perfectly over and over again.
Pykas approach cannot be compared to that of many drone manufacturers who mostly use multi-rotor vehicles due to their maneuverability and easy take-off and landing. However, these drones cannot carry the weight and volume of pesticides and other chemicals that (unfortunately) need to be used on a large scale.
The craft that Pyka built is more traditional and is similar to a traditional single-seater crop dust plane, but lacking the cockpit. It is powered by three propellers and most of the interior is used for payload (it can carry around 450 pounds) and batteries. Of course there is also a sensor system and an on-board computer to meet the immediate requirements of automated flight.
Pyka can take off or land on a 150-foot flat patch so you don't have to worry about setting up a runway and wasting energy to get to the target area. Of course, the battery has to be replaced at some point, which is one of the tasks of the ground crew. You will also design the overall course for the vehicle, although the actual trajectory and decisions are taken over by the flight computer.
All of this means that the plane, apparently called the heron, can spray about a hundred acres an hour, about as much as a helicopter. But the autonomous vehicle offers improved precision (it flies lower) and safety (no one pulls difficult maneuvers every or every second minute).
Perhaps, more importantly, it doesn't bother the government. Pyka claims to be the only company in the world that owns a commercially approved large autonomous electric aircraft. Small ones like drones have been approved from left and right, but the heron is approaching the size of a traditional "small plane" like a Piper Cub.
Of course, this is just the craft – other official hurdles hinder wide-ranging use, such as communication with air traffic management and other vehicles. Certification of the craft in another way; a more robust remote area to avoid sense and system and so on. But Pyka's Heron has already flown thousands of kilometers on test farms that pay for the privilege. (Pyka declined to comment on its business model, customers, or sales.)
The company's founding team – Michael Norcia, Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore, and Nathan White – comes from a number of well-known companies operating in adjacent spaces: Cora, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Google X, Waymo, and Morgan Stanley (the is the COO).
The $ 11 million launch round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with the participation of Y Combinator, Greycroft, Data Collective and Bold Capital Partners.