AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of former University of Texas students are taking farms around the world to the skies. It’s part of a new trend in the agriculture world that’s expected to be worth $5.7 billion by 2025: farming drones.

“Our curriculum at UT Austin was very drone focused,” said Arthur Erickson. A former UT student, Erickson and his roommates from Texan Tower went on to found Hylio in 2015. “Whereas everybody and their mom was doing like a delivery drone, we thought the AG industry was severely under, under nourished.”

Hylio produces a line of drones that are mostly automated. The Houston-based company designed them to help farmers spread seed, pesticides and various treatments. Their drones can lift up to eight gallons, about 65 pounds, of material. Each is outfitted with nozzles for spraying wet or dry material.

Erickson said the shift to drones for farmers is all about convenience. “I think most farmers I talked to these days, they’ve either used a spray drone or their neighbor used one.”

Farmers take to the skies

The trend toward farming drones has occurred over the past decade. A 2018 report published by Country Living found around 18% of farms in the United Kingdom had used a drone. That number was expected to go up over the next decade.

Drones are a rapidly growing trend for farmers. (Courtesy: Hylio)
Drones are a rapidly growing trend for farmers. (Courtesy: Hylio)

“Let’s call it by 2030, almost every farmer will have at least one or two spray drones,” Erickson said. He said the majority of their business in the U.S. is done in the Midwest, but they do have clients in Texas, too.

These drones are not confined to developed nations. Erickson said much of their business is conducted in Latin America. “A lot of their agricultural production is in very complicated areas.”

He said in these countries, much of the infrastructure is lacking. Farms are also on mountains or found on hillsides. Erickson said larger farming equipment has a harder time reaching these areas, which is why farmers in the area rely on drones.

Drones in the United States

In the U.S., drones are used by many smaller farms. Erickson said this is because these farms can’t be sprayed by planes and helicopters.

“There are now a lot of farms that are up against suburbs where they used to be able to spray, but now there’s concerns with being too close to a residential area.”

Drones also provide precision helicopters and planes do not provide. Rice farmer Sammy Simon from Winnie, Texas said he uses his drone to spot spray problem areas when applying treatments.

Hylio's larger drones are capable of lifting up to eight gallons of material. (Courtesy: Hylio)
Hylio’s larger drones are capable of lifting up to eight gallons of material. (Courtesy: Hylio)

Another advantage of drones is they can be deployed rapidly. Erickson said many farmers are placed on waitlists for helicopters and planes for months. When treatment is needed, like say for a fungal infection in the crops, these delays can be devastating.

Drones can be sent out immediately. No waitlist required.

“You only do 250 acres per day, per drone, whereas a helicopter could do 1,000. But in those four days that you make up 1,000, that helicopter still wouldn’t be there,” Erickson said.

Erickson said drones are also used once crops reach a certain height and larger machines can’t reach them without causing damage.

Not a replacement, but an extra tool in the arsenals

Erickson said drones are best used as an extra tool. They can’t replace tractors or even traditional crop dusters. “Helicopters and planes are always going to be great for just like sheer volume, big fields.”

Drones are not capable of spraying massive fields as efficiently. Hylio’s drones can hold up to eight gallons of material, the amount of which can be sprayed based on the needs of the farmer.

Hylio’s drones are, as said, mostly automated. Farmers can set up the boundaries of the drone, where it is spraying and how much. Erickson said the system is easy to learn, and that’s part of the reason the industry is taking off.

“One customer who was an older gentleman in his 60s, we sold him the drone. But we also sold them the first laptop he ever owned,” Erickson said. “Within a day, that person who had minimal computer skills was able to fly and effectively utilize the drone and has since sprayed probably a few 1,000 acres.”