A new entrant in the eVTOL drone space, Guardian Agriculture, has emerged from stealth with a 500-pound (225-kilogram) “air utility platform” and a focus on precision crop protection.
According to co-founder and CEO Adam Bercu, “agriculture has a long and rich history of being an early adopter of technology,” as its low margins mean that farmers will latch onto anything that gives them an edge. Boston-based Guardian believes the precise spraying enabled by its multicopter drone, nicknamed “Goliath,” will enable farmers to reduce chemical use by up to 20 percent compared to traditional cropdusting aircraft, which are prone to overspray. Guardian’s system also integrates data analytics to measure the effectiveness of each application and continually drive better performance.
Bercu got his start in autonomous systems as a kid building robots (and recently lived out his childhood dream when he competed on the Discovery Channel show “BattleBots”). But Guardian, he stated emphatically, is “not a science experiment — we’re a business.”
Guardian plans to offer its systems as a service, and claims to have more than $20 million in service reservation agreements with farmers in locations including California and Florida. The company has raised $15.5 million in total financing, including a $10.5 million seed round led by Leaps by Bayer with participation from FMC Ventures, Wilbur-Ellis’ Cavallo Ventures, Fall Line Capital, the MIT-affiliated E14 Fund, Pillar VC, and Neoteny.
One of those investors, Clay Mitchell, is a fifth-generation Iowan farmer who founded Fall Line Capital 10 years ago. Mitchell told eVTOL.com he’s excited about the prospect of improving the spraying business with technology. The overspray associated with traditional cropdusting “melts the whole landscape away,” he said, while delivering several sub-lethal doses of weed killer or fungicide can also breed resistance. “When you’re on target, none of this is a problem.” Guardian’s system can also fly at night, lessening impacts on pollinating bees.
According to Mitchell, “the control and cost is such a game changer in farming, we have a conviction that all farm spraying will go this route.”
The idea of using drones for precision spraying isn’t new. For example, small remotely piloted helicopters from Yamaha have been used for pest control in Japan for decades, and in recent years have been approved for use in the U.S., where they have been used in vineyards for fungicide aerial applications. The gas-powered Yamaha Fazer R drone has a practical payload of 70 lb. (32 kg) but Guardian’s large eVTOL can carry over 200 lb. (90 kg), making it practical for use on larger farms.
Guardian actually uses two aircraft in a multi-step process. First, a smaller drone (weighing less than 55 lb. / 25 kg) conducts a scanning overflight of the area to provide mission mapping. That information is then transferred to the large eVTOL, which is loaded up with chemicals for application.
Bercu explained that the eVTOL’s flights are intentionally short, around one-and-a-half to two minutes. That allows Guardian to maximize payload with a small, lightweight battery that is quickly recharged at the company’s mobile ground-station supercharger and filling station.
Guardian joins other players including Volocopter and Pyka in targeting the agricultural drone market, which a 2016 PwC report estimated as potentially worth as much as $32.4 billion. However, Guardian is also indicating that agriculture is only “step one” for the company. “When you see this 500-pound thing going around doing work, your mind just races,” said Bercu. Guardian chief operating officer Jeff Sparks suggested that the aircraft could also be used to transport loads on construction sites, for example.
In the meantime, however, the company will be focused on delivering value for farmers — and American farmers in particular.
“We want to stamp an American label on this and be able to have an American product that services American farms,” Sparks said.