in-flight innovation

Houston area drone company on track to revolutionize the agriculture industry

Hylio, based just south of Houston, is setting out to bring the agriculture industry into the 21st century. Photo courtesy of Hylio

Renowned American inventor Thomas Edison once said, "There's a way to do it better, find it."

That timeless adage has been the spark that has ignited countless technological advances over the years and Hylio is no different, applying it to its own mission to disrupt the agricultural technology space.

With rampant systemic inefficiencies with current crop spraying solutions negatively affecting farm economics, Hylio developed its AgroDrone, a precision crop spraying drone system that is revolutionizing ag-tech.

"Our company started about five years ago, when we were delivering in Central America and noticed the way people were doing spraying was extremely inefficient," says Arthur Erickson, CEO and co-founder of Hylio. "They were doing it either by hand or by plane or helicopter. If you are doing it by hand, you are doing it extremely slow and very inaccurate. If you're doing it by plane or helicopter, you're doing it faster, but you're extremely inaccurate."

In most cases, when farmers use traditional crop spraying methods such as helicopter or plane, up 90 percent of the fertilizer or pesticides miss their intended targets or float away.

However, AgroDrone, which was recently accepted into the Capital Factory accelerator, provides for a very precise method of applying those chemicals with its intuitive planning system, which monitors and controls the spray volumes using pre-existing map files or polygons.

"For the past year, we've been our own first customer," says Erickson. "We've used the technology in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on 40,000 acres. We learned the product and what made it more efficient by using it in the field 10 hours a day. We built this from the ground up using it as a farmer would. We worked out all the bugs, optimized it and made it reliable, so when farmers are out there in the mud or in the rain, it still works."

The drone's flight software allows it to be completely turnkey. The electron-based application can be run on any cross platform and gives pilots control over the drone at all times.

Additionally, the redundant critical flight system ensures stable flight.

"Our software was made completely in house," says Erickson. "Like a Google map interface, you can set up your own pre-loaded missions, in different polygon shapes, draw them yourself or import polygon files and generate missions for the drone to fly."

Because of the radar altimeters fitted on the drones, farmers are able to reduce the amount of chemicals they use because the drones maintain optimal height over crops at all times, which minimizes drift and maximizes application quality.

"If you talk to any farmer that has 400 acres of corn, for example, and they want to get it sprayed, it would cost them maybe $400 times 10 for labor times 10 for chemicals, so about $8000," says Erickson. "The problem is they're providing a brute force solution to a problem that is very simple to solve with a drone.

"If they've got weeds on their 400 acres, and the weeds are only on one or two acres, little spots in the field, they just want to eliminate those spots, so they don't need to pay someone to spray their entire field, so they're saving the chemical cost per acre is $10 bucks. So if they run our drone for 10 minutes, they're literally saving $7,000 or more."

The innovators behind Hylio started the company because they were passionate about drones, but saw that the crop spraying system for farmers was broken and inefficient, so they sought to make the process better and more sustainable.

"Farmers are responsible for how we eat, how everyone eats," says Erickson. "The current technologies used in agriculture is outdated and not very cost effective. We looked at the farm economics and wanted to help develop viable solutions. Every farmer has to battle weeds; it is universal. All crop and weeds are different, but it is the same concept. The more you control the weeds, the more money you make at the end of the year. A farmer could lose 20 percent or more of their crops if they do not control their weeds properly. Despite the inefficiencies and razor thin margins, farmers still use helicopters and planes because they have to kill those weeds.

"There's a better way to do it with drones and it comes at a fraction of the price."

The AgroDrone starts at $19,300 and is delivered to the farmer fully tested and assembled. The package includes four pairs of 30,000 mAh 22V LiPo batteries, charging equipment, one handheld GPS tracker unit and access to the Hylio AgroSol Mission Control Software.

The software, which was designed by farmers for farmers, requires a recurring monthly fee that ranges from $100 to $500 depending on the level.

Hylio also provides the central device that can control multiple drones at the same time and service hundreds of acres per day.

"The people that are doing the weed control spraying for farmers literally won't come out because it's not worth their time to just come out and spray one or two acres," says Erickson. "So even if a farmer has a problem that they know is only on one or two acres, they have to spray the whole thing, because they market will only allow people to spray the entire amount. They cannot come out and afford to spray one or two acres. However, if you buy a drone, you can do it yourself with the click of a button. Farmers are saving literally $10,000 per application depending on how big their crop is."

According to the US Department of Agriculture, American farmers received $11.5 billion in subsidies in 2017. That number will be drastically higher in 2019 to offset the market losses farmers will see due to President Donald Trump's trade war with China.

With profits in continual decline, Hylio's mission to improve margins for farmers continues.

"Farming is heavily subsidized now," says Erickson. "None of them are making money, so they desperately need something to increase their bottom lines. We are here to make farmers' lives better and help them feed us better. It's a win win."

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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