Oakland-based Pyka shares a goal common to many high-tech California aviation startups: to build an autonomous electric passenger aircraft. However, its first steps to get there have taken the company far away from the pack, first to New Zealand and now to banana plantations in Costa Rica and Ecuador, where it’s preparing to field a robotic crop-spraying airplane called Pelican that CEO Michael Norcia says will prove out technology he believes will lead the way to an era of green, low-cost passenger planes.
The fat-bellied, 500-pound plane can carry more than its weight in liquid pesticides or fertilizer, and is engineered to take off and land in a ridiculously short space: 150 feet, half the length of a football field. Someday that short takeoff and landing capability may enable passenger service to be shoehorned into cities and suburbs in a different way than many other electric aviation startups are envisioning. For now, the 28-year-old Norcia is betting that agriculture is a more practical – and lucrative — avenue to pursue. Pyka says the Pelican will have 50% of the operating costs of manned crop-spraying planes and will remove pilots from harm’s way in a business where skimming fields at 140 miles per hour too often leads to accidents and death. And banana plantations, which are the most frequent users of aerial spraying in the world, may be the perfect environment for it to take wing.
Dozens of companies are trying to build futuristic-looking, autonomous electric “air taxis” that can take off and land vertically on city roofs, carrying one to a half-dozen passengers. Norcia, whose first job after graduating from UC Davis with a physics degree was at one of them, billionaire Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk, believes they’re a decade too soon – the limitations of current batteries and other technologies leave eVTOLs with too little range given how energy intensive it is to propel an aircraft straight up and down, he says.
Pyka’s strategy is to take the well-understood efficiencies of fixed-winged airplanes and marry it to advances in high-power electric motors to produce an airplane that can operate on radically shorter runways. “They like to fly,” Norcia says of fixed-wing airplanes. “By starting with something that looks like an airplane you start off on the right foot.”
At the same time, Norcia, who grew up in the Bay Area building small planes (“I had a lucky upbringing that gave me the resources to buy huge amounts of balsa wood”), believed it was too soon to try to convince regulators that its’s safe to let electric robot aircraft fly people. “There’s still a lot of innovation that has to happen on the electric propulsion side and in autonomy,” he says. “Trying to marry all that innovation with the most regulated industry in the world ends up being a challenging relationship.”
To Norcia and his cofounders — COO Chuma Ogunwole, a recent Harvard MBA; and software engineers Nathan White and Kyle Moore – a crop sprayer seemed like an easier safety case.
Crop-spraying planes hug the ground in rural airspace that no one else is using, meaning Pyka doesn’t have to solve the thorny problems that drone package delivery services and autonomous urban air taxi hopefuls do of how to ensure their aircraft don’t crash into each other, or the airplanes and helicopters that already fill suburban and urban skies.
Another reason Norcia says they “fell in love” with crop spraying: profit potential.
“The unit economics are fantastic, stronger than any other use case we looked at,” says Norcia, including passenger service or cargo delivery, which a number of other startups are focused on as a more practical near-term target.
Pyka, which has raised $11 million from backers including Prime Mover Labs and Y Combinator, declined to discuss the numbers behind its analysis, but 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. That will keep Pelican busy on the same fields, which is key for it be competitive now.
Before it can start spraying, Pelican’s operators have to survey the field, pinpointing boundaries and obstacles like telephone wires or irrigation towers that the plane will have to avoid. Down the road Norcia says Pelican, which is equipped with downward-facing Lidar and forward-facing lasers, will be able to map fields in 15 minutes, but for now it takes three hours, which means it’s not time or cost-competitive with manned aircraft unless the field needs frequent spraying.
That’s a lesson Pyka learned through experience in New Zealand, where it’s already sprayed crops with a smaller, earlier-generation version of its plane called Egret that the company says is the largest UAV yet to be used commercially. Pyka set up shop there due to a more experimentation-friendly regulatory environment that first attracted Norcia’s former employer Kitty Hawk, which has been flight-testing a two-seat autonomous aircraft in New Zealand since 2017, now in partnership with Boeing.
But worried that safety certification from New Zealand aviation authorities for such new technology wouldn’t be recognized in other countries, Pyka decided to shift to the U.S. for certification. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration granted Pyka a special airworthiness certificate for Pelican two weeks ago that allows the company to start demoing it on farms in the U.S. and to train crews here on how to operate the airplane, which the company plans to lease to aerial spraying outfits. Norcia expects to receive full-fledged certification from the FAA by the end of the year to spray fields within line of sight of a safety monitor, which should allow the company to get under way at the banana plantations, given reciprocal recognition by those countries’ aviation authorities.
In the U.S., the largest aerial spraying market in the world with roughly $800 million in annual sales, by the estimate of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, drones have caught on for monitoring the health of crops, but not for applying pesticides, due to crop-spraying drones’ high cost and limited capacities. Pyka sees opportunity with crops like leafy greens and vegetables that need to look good on supermarket shelves – those often are sprayed five to 15 times a year, says Norcia.
Norcia concedes that Pelican will only be 40% as productive as the average manned crop-spraying plane, which carries roughly six times as much chemical as the 625-pound payload electric drone, and traverses fields at much faster speeds (140 mph vs. 80 mph for Pelican) but he says the electric drone will make up for it on the cost side. “It’s an order of magnitude less expensive per hour to run,” he says. Plus he says the robot will be able to apply its payload more accurately and efficiently than a human pilot, flying safely at night, when winds are often gentler, and minimizing drift, which would limit the chemical exposure of people who live by farms.
Andrew D. Moore, CEO of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, says his members will embrace any technology that makes them more efficient, but he says the jury is still out on how precise crop-spraying drones are given the air flow impact of their multiple rotors. The agricultural aviation industry has worked with the EPA for decades to reduce drift and optimize how single-propeller airplanes dispense chemicals, he says, intensively studying their aerodynamics and how to align spraying booms and nozzles. “When claims are made about the precision of UAVs, the research is not there,” Moore says.
Norcia says the design flexibility allowed by lightweight electric motors has enabled Pyka to place its three propellers – one high up on Pelican’s T tail and one on each wing — where they have no measurable impact on the drone’s spray pattern, which he says they’ve studied with top researchers in the field.
Damon Reabe, a third-generation Wisconsin crop sprayer who operates eight single-prop Air Tractor AT-502s and a Bell 206 helicopter, says Pyka isn’t taking account real-world problems that may torpedo its efficiency claims.
Pyka says Pelican is capable of spraying 135 acres an hour, landing every 15 minutes to refill its tank and with a battery swap after 45 minutes. Reabe says that means he’d need at least three of the drones to cover the same amount of ground in an hour as he can with a single Air Tractor. Given that each Pelican requires a crew of two (a remote pilot and a ground station operator) and a truck to haul the drone, chemicals and water to the field, Reabe says it sounds like “a logistical nightmare.”
Three trucks would require hiring three workers who hold commercial drivers’ licenses, who Reabe says are tough to recruit for seasonal work, as well as training more people on how to mix and handle the chemicals. And they all have to show up on time in order to get out to the farm for a full day’s work.
Once there, Reabe says it may be harder than Pyka realizes to find space for all that equipment on a busy farm, as well as for Pelican to take off and land, something he says he knows well from his helicopter operation, which also operates from a truck on site.
“I don’t want to disparage their efforts, but there are other problems that need to be solved,” says Reabe, “and once you do that you don’t know that it’s less expensive than putting the pilot in the aircraft.”
Norcia says Pyka’s efficiency case will be bolstered once it’s certified to fly beyond visual line of sight, and down the road a single pilot should be able to oversee multiple Pelicans.
Other startups are exploring the potential of short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) airplanes: Electra.aero, founded by UAV pioneer John Langford of Aurora Flight Sciences, is developing a hybrid STOL passenger plane, while Marc Ausman, the chief strategist for Airbus’ shuttered Vahana eVTOL project, is heading a venture called Airflow that aims to build an electric STOL cargo plane.