By autumn 2023, 100 farmer-customers in the U.S. will explore uses for their new RYSE RECONs.
By Treena Hein
Efficiency, ease-of-use, rapid task completion – these are some of the many reasons there are tens of thousands of drones already in the air over farms across many parts of the world. Drones are becoming hugely popular for crop scouting, spraying crop protection products and doing spot applications of fertilizer as needed. They can even spread seed.
A step up from drones that will roll out on farms in the U.S. this summer is Guardian Agriculture’s SCI aircraft. Like a drone, it can carry a tank of crop protection product and/or sensors, with no emissions and no soil compaction. It’s far larger than a drone, however, and meant to be operated with automated, pre-programmed flying patterns that align with GPS field maps. Due to its size, aerospace-grade components and AI systems, it’s classified as an electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft, and the first eVTOL of its kind to have (just recently) received approval for nation-wide operation from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
And by this fall, an ultralight eVTOL, the RECON from RYSE Aero Tech, will also appear on U.S. farms. Like several other ultralight eVTOLs to hit the market later this year or in 2024, it will be used for military, recreational and medical/emergency/disaster response purposes as well.
The design of ultralight aircraft of any type must follow the appropriate FAA guidelines (Part 103), which restrict these single-occupant aircraft in aspect such as weight, speed, altitude and where they can be flown (no urban areas or over gatherings of people). The RECON has a range of up to 45 km (25 miles) per charge (about 25 minutes), a maximum speed of 101 kph (63 mph) and a cost of USD$150 000. It weighs about 285 pounds, and can put down on land or water.
Most of the hundreds of the first RECON pre-purchasers are farmers, about 200 of them already. “From the start, we saw the potential for farm use to replace ATVs and trucks for various on-farm and ranching tasks,” says Mick Kowitz, RYSE founder and CEO. “Our focus is to get the first 100 RECONs out to farmers and gather a lot of feedback about their uses. As with anything new, when something is out there in actual use, people come up with all kinds of new uses.”
RECON on the farm
Crop and spring field condition scouting is one of the most obvious uses for the RECON. But Kowitz says many farmers with whom RYSE has spoken put repairing farm equipment in the field at the top of the list.
That is, when the tractor breaks down, farmers could use their cell phone to someone back at the farm shop and ask that they fly out with a repair kit. (It’s expected, however, that eventually, automated operation for ultralight eVTOLs will be allowed as it’s already allowed now for smaller eVTOLs like the SCI. So, if your tractor breaks down in the field, you could ‘call the RECON,’ with a repair kit or specific part having been placed on board by someone else, do the repair and then send the RECON back to home base.)
“A lot of farmers hate using ATVs,” says Kowitz. “They break down, they are gas hogs and, if you rent land, you may have to drive quite a way, even across other farmers’ land, to get to your broken piece of equipment or whatever other task you need to do. Many farmers have said to us that if the RECON can save them time by going straight as the crow flies, it’s worth it. They’ve been excited about creating landing spots in their fields, which means they could get rid of some of their field roads along the edge, and after a few years when the compaction reduced, they could put those strips into production.”
However, to make this use case really effective – so that they could land right in a field provided the crops weren’t too mature – farmers suggested to RYSE that they should add stilts to the RECON. RYSE obliged. They added removable peg legs about 18 inches long that lock in on the base of the six outrigger floats. With these pegs, the RECON typically sinks into the soil only about 1.5 inches. (And in case you’re wondering, longer pegs aren’t feasible as the RECON landing is not completely straight down but involves a tiny bit of a skid-forward motion.)
Returning to crop scouting for a moment, this of course can be done by drones – and like a drone, the RECON has cameras (German-made HD infrared cameras) to take footage or still pictures while you are hovering, and a GPS system to mark points for future inspection and action – but the RECON allows you that big picture view, and with the stilts, allows you to disembark.
And for longer trips to far-off fields or tagging new calves in herds far from the farm base, for example, a farmer could set up a few solar-powered charging stations around the farm. That is, the farmer lands at the station, swaps out spent batteries with fresh ones, and by the time of return, the first set of batteries are charged up again.
Through the focus groups and through other avenues, RYSE has received many other use ideas. “We attended farm shows last year (Farm Progress, Sunbelt Ag, and Ohio State’s Farm Science Review) where we were able to speak directly to farmers from all around the U.S.,” says Kowitz. “We were able to orchestrate focus groups through extension agents and farmers as well throughout states in the Midwest. Additionally, we have been speaking to prospective buyers via incoming emails and calls to us. These folks were all able to identify many areas they could use the RECON.”
With regard to crop production, many farmers have asked RYSE about adding spray tanks, but Kowitz explains that ultralight regulations don’t presently allow that. “We expect that some farmers who want to use the RECON to spray will work with their local municipalities and seek an FAA exception,” he says. “That’s how things stand in the U.S. In other countries it’s different.”
Other uses centered on livestock. “This unit would make things so much easier on a cattle farm by locating missing cattle, locating cattle that need tags and shots, and finding baby calves that the heifer hid too well,” said one farmer.
“Calving season can be very muddy on a four-wheeler,” said another. “I like that this unit can make that job a lot easier.” Still another noted that “I could use this for checking fence lines, finding the herd of feral hogs creating havoc, among many other uses to make things more efficient at the farm.”
Kowitz concludes, “I think each farmer is going to use the RECON in different ways, depending on their type and size operation, personal preference, other transportation options and so on. I think most farmers will have three or four main uses, but we’re very excited about uses that haven’t been identified yet.”
Safety aspects of the RECON
Safety features of ultralight eVTOLs include hardware and software. In terms of hardware, each of the six rotor systems are independent in terms of wiring and battery packs. There is no single point of failure or all-in-one centralized battery hub. For water landing, there are six independent outrigger floats and two fuselage floats.
In terms of software, a ‘Simplified Vehicle Operations System’ ensure a low learning curve and simple flight controls for the pilot. Risk of a hard landing is eliminated with advanced redundant AI with auto take-off and landing features. Automated data collection promotes self-learning and improvement of the AI over time. The operator platform is simple, consisting of a tablet main screen with a joystick on each side (and if you let go, the RECON just hovers). The AI system works to keep the machine steady when hovering even in winds as high as 25 mph. An optical LIDAR for laser-based obstacle avoidance assists the operator to avoid obstacles.