Move Over, Tractor—the Farmer Wants a Crop-Spraying Drone

Arthur Erickson’s startup builds autonomous agricultural drones

5 min read

Edd Gent is a Contributing Editor who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum.

A smiling dark haired man with a beard and mustache holds a black case in both hands while a large drone flies behind him in a field.

Hylio’s CEO, Arthur Erickson, demonstrates how a farmer would operate one of the company’s spray drones.

Hylio

Arthur Erickson discovered drones during his first year at college studying aerospace engineering. He immediately thought the sky was the limit for how the machines could be used, but it took years of hard work and some nimble decisions to turn that enthusiasm into a successful startup.

Today, Erickson is the CEO of Houston-based Hylio, a company that builds crop-spraying drones for farmers. Launched in 2015, the company has its own factory and employs more than 40 people.

Arthur Erickson

Occupation:

Aerospace engineer and founder, Hylio

Location:

Houston

Education:

Bachelor’s degree in aerospace, specializing in aeronautics, from the University of Texas at Austin

Erickson founded Hylio with classmates while they were attending the University of Texas at Austin. They were eager to quit college and launch their business, which he admits was a little presumptuous.

“We were like, ‘Screw all the school stuff—drones are the future,’” Erickson says. “I already thought I had all the requisite technical skills and had learned enough after six months of school, which obviously was arrogant.”

His parents convinced him to finish college, but Erickson and the other cofounders spent all their spare time building a multipurpose drone from off-the-shelf components and parts they made using their university’s 3D printers and laser cutters.

By the time he graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace, specializing in aeronautics, the group’s prototype was complete, and they began hunting for customers. The next three years were a wild ride of testing their drones in Costa Rica and other countries across Central America.

A grocery delivery service

A promotional video about the company that Erickson posted on Instagram led to the first customer, the now-defunct Costa Rican food and grocery delivery startup GoPato. The company wanted to use the drones to make deliveries in the capital, San José, but rather than purchase the machines, GoPato offered to pay for the founders’ meals and lodging and give them a percentage of delivery fees collected.

For the next nine months, Hylio’s team spent their days sending their drones on deliveries and their nights troubleshooting problems in a makeshift workshop in their shared living room.

“We had a lot of sleepless nights,” Erickson says. “It was a trial by fire, and we learned a lot.”

One lesson was the need to build in redundant pieces of key hardware, particularly the GPS unit. “When you have a drone crash in the middle of a Costa Rican suburb, the importance of redundancy really hits home,” Erickson says.

“Drones are great for just learning, iterating, crashing things, and then rebuilding them.”

The small cut of delivery fees Hylio received wasn’t covering costs, Erickson says, so eventually the founders parted ways with GoPato. Meanwhile, they had been looking for new business opportunities in Costa Rica. They learned from local farmers that the terrain was too rugged for tractors, so most sprayed crops by hand. This was both grueling and hazardous because it brought the farmers into close proximity to the pesticides.

The Hylio team realized its drones could do this type of work faster and more safely. They designed a spray system and made some software tweaks, and by 2018 the company began offering crop-spraying services, Erickson says. The company expanded its business to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, starting with just a pair of drones but eventually operating three spraying teams of four drones each.

The work was tough, Erickson says, but the experience helped the team refine their technology, working out which sensors operated best in the alternately dusty and moist conditions found on farms. Even more important, by the end of 2019 they were finally turning a profit.

Drones are cheaper than tractors

In hindsight, agriculture was an obvious market, Erickson says, even in the United States, where spraying with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers is typically done using large tractors. These tractors can cost up to half a million dollars to purchase and about US $7 a hectare to operate.

A pair of Hylio’s drones cost a fifth of that, Erickson says, and operating them costs about a quarter of the price. The company’s drones also fly autonomously; an operator simply marks GPS waypoints on a map to program the drone where to spray and then sits back and lets it do the job. In this way, one person can oversee multiple drones working at once, covering more fields than a single tractor could.

A dark haired beard man in glasses reaches down to a large white drone that is as tall as his mid-thighs and has multiple rotors.Arthur Erickson inspects the company’s largest spray drone, the AG-272. It can cover thousands of hectares per day.Hylio

Convincing farmers to use drones instead of tractors was tough, Erickson says. Farmers tend to be conservative and are wary of technology companies that promise too much.

“Farmers are used to people coming around every few years with some newfangled idea, like a laser that’s going to kill all their weeds or some miracle chemical,” he says.

In 2020, Hylio opened a factory in Houston and started selling drones to American farmers. The first time Hylio exhibited its machines at an agricultural trade show, Erickson says, a customer purchased one on the spot.

“It was pretty exciting,” he says. “It was a really good feeling to find out that our product was polished enough, and the pitch was attractive enough, to immediately get customers.”

Today, selling farmers on the benefits of drones is a big part of Erickson’s job. But he’s still involved in product development, and his daily meetings with the sales team have become an invaluable source of customer feedback. “They inform a lot of the features that we add to the products,” he says.

He’s currently leading development of a new type of drone—a scout—designed to quickly inspect fields for pest infestations or poor growth or to assess crop yields. But these days his job is more about managing his team of engineers than about doing hands-on engineering himself. “I’m more of a translator between the engineers and the market needs,” he says.

Focus on users’ needs

Erickson advises other founders of startups not to get too caught up in the excitement of building cutting-edge technology, because you can lose sight of what the user actually needs.

“I’ve become a big proponent of not trying to outsmart the customers,” he says. “They tell us what their pain points are and what they want to see in the product. Don’t overengineer it. Always check with the end users that what you’re building is going to be useful.”

Working with drones forces you to become a generalist, Erickson says. You need a basic understanding of structural mechanics and aerodynamics to build something airworthy. But you also need to be comfortable working with sensors, communications systems, and power electronics, not to mention the software used to control and navigate the vehicles.

Erickson advises students who want to get into the field to take courses in mechatronics, which provide a good blend of mechanical and electrical engineering. Deep knowledge of the individual parts is generally not as important as understanding how to fit all the pieces together to create a system that works well as a whole.

And if you’re a tinkerer like he is, Erickson says, there are few better ways to hone your engineering skills than building a drone. “It’s a cheap, fast way to get something up in the air,” he says. “They’re great for just learning, iterating, crashing things, and then rebuilding them.”

This article appears in the June 2024 print issue as “Careers: Arthur Erickson.”

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