America has never seen a drone this big

It’s 1,125 pounds. It’s been spraying pesticides and other chemicals over farms in Central and South America. And now, it’s coming to the U.S. That’s the Pyka Pelican Spray craft — and it just became the largest-ever, automated electric aircraft in the U.S. to receive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization for commercial operation.

Pyka is a tech and aviation startup based in Oakland, Calif. building large-scale, highly-automated electric aircraft for two primary functions: delivery and agricultural spraying. And just this month, Pyka received FAA approval from the FAA to operate its zero-emission highly-automated Pelican Spray aircraft for crop protection commercially nationwide.

The news stands out for a few reasons, but one is big — literally. It has a gross weight of 1,125 pounds, making it the largest ever to receive FAA authorization for commercial operation in the U.S.

The second reason is simply practical: commercial operations of agricultural spraying drones can now begin in the U.S. That’s made in part by the first-of-its-kind, drone-specific certification that Pyka earned, as well as an agricultural aircraft operator certificate.

Photo courtesy of Pyka.

Why the Pyka approval is such a big deal

Sure, the massive size of the Pyka Pelican Spray aircraft makes this a big deal. But this FAA approval goes much deeper than that — setting a precedent for agricultural spraying drones in the U.S.

While Pyka’s Pelican Spray aircraft is already operational on farms in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Brazil, it hasn’t yet been working in the U.S. At present, you’re unlikely to see any drones spraying fertilizers, herbicides or other chemicals over farms in the U.S. purely because the FAA has not made it easy for large drones to get approval to fly.

The FAA’s Part 107 spells out a clear path for how drones weighing less than 55 pounds at takeoff can get approvals for legal drone flights. But for drones weighing more than that (which are most spraying drones), it’s far more complicated. Large drones have a few pathways for legal flight in the eyes of the FAA, including:

  • 49 U.S.C 44807 Grant of exemption (for commercial flights)
  • Type certificate (for commercial flights)
  • Special Airworthiness Certificate operations
  • Public Aircraft Operations
  • Flights operated as recreational flyers

“The FAA’s action to authorize Pyka’s operations signifies the FAA’s commitment to enabling larger and more advanced agricultural operations,” according to a statement from Pyka.

For now, those operations haven’t happened. But Pyka could pave the way for others. In fact, earlier this year, DJI announced that its DJI Agras T20P drone would become available outside Asia, including many countries within North America and other countries within the Americas. That’s also a spraying drone, and it has a total weight of 38 kg without battery, and a max takeoff weight (at sea level) of 90 kg (for spraying) or 101 kg (for spreading). That’s far smaller than the Pyka. But with Pyka approved, it means other agricultural drones like DJI’s Agras T20P could become ubiquitous on U.S. farms.

Photo courtesy of Pyka.

What about delivery drones?

Even if you have zero interest in agricultural drones, there’s another aspect of the drone industry that this affects — the drone delivery industry. For now, delivery drones are only carrying small packages, often with one or two items at a time. Critics have argued such operations are less environmentally friendly than traditional delivery methods given that drones only carry so few items at a time. But with drones like what Pyka is building in the 1,000-lb realm, uncrewed aircraft might be able to transport packages on a much bigger scale than today’s delivery drones.

“This commercial approval is the first step in enabling us to generate massive value for growers in the U.S., Latin America, and other markets we operate in, while also laying the operational and regulatory groundwork for eventual scaling into uncrewed cargo operations worldwide,” said Michael Norcia, Chief Executive Officer of Pyka.

Photo courtesy of Pyka.

What to know about Pyka

Pyka’s Pelican Spray aircraft is a fixed-wing, highly-automated all-electric aerial application technology. It’s designed to not only allow pilotless aircraft to carry out work that a previously crewed aircraft would have to execute, but it’s also able to provide increased spray precision — which in turn reduces chemical usage costs (and is more environmentally friendly than other methods of putting chemicals on crops).

This drone can carry up to 540 lbs (70 gallons) of liquid and spray up to 240 acres per hour. And, it claims the title of world’s first and only commercially certified electric autonomous airplane.

The same drone design is also currently being modified to be used for drone deliveries that could extend across a 200-mile radius.

The Pelican crop spraying drone is made fully autonomous via LIDAR enabled collision and terrain avoidance systems.

And while today’s news is huge, Pyka has a series of firsts to its name. Last year, Pyka secured the first ever regulatory approval to fly unmanned aerial spray missions at night with a fixed wing aircraft. That approval was authorized by the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC) in Costa Rica in July 2022, giving the Pelican Spray approval to be used by Pyka’s local customers to spray large commercial banana plantations, both day and night.

Spraying banana fields at night is seen as far more practical both for better spray distribution and reducing risk of unintended chemical drift due to typically lower winds after sunset, as well as for doubling the viable spray window.

The current state of aerial agriculture operations

Believe it or not, the track record for manned aircraft in the agricultural space is not great. In 2020 alone, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported 54 aircraft accidents involving agricultural operations. Of those, 12 accidents were fatal, and 13 people died in total within the year.

“Among other safety and environmental benefits, the use of highly-automated UAS like the Pelican to perform potentially hazardous aircraft operations can reduce the number of pilot fatalities that occur each year in the aerial agricultural spraying industry,” said Lisa Ellman, Partner and Chair of Hogan Lovells’ Uncrewed Aircraft System Practice and leading policy advocate for the commercial UAS industry.

Not only is Pyka’s solution potentially safer, but it’s also far more efficient (in terms of both time and money) than what’s out there today. Pyka claims its Pelican Spray drone can spray up to 130 acres an hour at a fifth of the operating costs of piloted aircraft.

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