Simple Flying caught up with Michael Norcia, co-founder and CEO of Pyka, a California-based autonomous electric aviation outfit.
Earlier this year, Pyka revealed the world’s largest autonomous electric cargo aircraft. While the company is now making waves with the Pelican Cargo, plenty of hard work has gone into the program since its founding six years ago.
Pyka has grown significantly since its formation in 2017. It began as a team of four, building its first prototype out of Norcia’s parents’ backyard for the Y-combinator accelerator. The firm has since grown to 47 employees with a robust aircraft manufacturing facility and corporate headquarters in Oakland, California.
Sumit Singh: What separates you from other autonomous electric aircraft outfits?
Michael Norcia: Pyka is founded on the belief that we can make the greatest impact by solving the most pressing problems in aviation first. Rather than setting our near-term pursuits on the goal of autonomous electric passenger transport, we’ve honed in on a more pragmatic approach.
We opted to focus on automating the notoriously dangerous flight mission of crop dusting and eliminating carbon emissions from air logistics through electrification, all the while lowering operating costs and increasing efficiency for our customers.
Ultimately, we plan to deliver a passenger-carrying autonomous electric aircraft, but that will be after we’ve achieved the utmost technological maturity and have a demonstrated history of success both on the commercial and regulatory fronts with our agriculture and cargo products.
SS: Please tell us about Pyka’s certification processes.
MN: We’ve deployed our products with launch customers on three separate continents, including some of the largest agricultural producers in Central and South America, raised a total of $48 million in funding from mostly climate tech-focused VCs, and have secured certifications for flight operations in four separate countries, including the United States. Of those certifications, we’re especially excited about our approvals for night operation in Costa Rica and Honduras with Pelican Spray, our flagship autonomous electric crop duster.
SS: Which other companies are you partnering with?
MN: On the commercial side, we’ve signed LOIs and long-term leases with some of the world’s largest fresh fruit producers and are in the early stages of reaching agreements with leading players in the logistics industry for Pelican Cargo, a recently released variant of the Pelican platform designed for middle-mile air cargo transport.
On the deployment side, we’ve partnered with Skyports Drone Services, one of the most sophisticated drone operators in the market, for select operations in the United Kingdom, including the UK Ministry of Defence’s Heavy Lift and Future Flight Challenges.
Plenty to consider
SS: Which markets are you primarily catering to?
MN: For Pelican Spray, our aerial application aircraft, we are catering to industrial agricultural producers who are seeking a safer, cleaner, and more cost-effective solution for aerial spray. Our aircraft has been particularly useful in the banana-growing regions of the world due to the need for around-the-clock chemical application.
For Pelican Cargo, our cargo-carrying aircraft, there is a much wider variety of use cases and, therefore, a broader range of customers. Our primary markets are private logistics companies and government agencies seeking to enhance same-day delivery networks and enable reliable access to goods for remote regions of the world with minimal ground infrastructure. In parallel, we are seeking engagements with NGOs, particularly with Humanitarian Aid projects providing urgently needed supplies in war-torn parts of the world and disaster zones.
SS: Please tell us about the tech involved in Pyka’s aircraft.
MN: We design, develop and manufacture an ecosystem of technologies, including proprietary flight control software, avionics, high-power density motors, motor controllers, batteries, and custom carbon-fiber composite airframes. Roughly 90% of our aircraft is designed in-house.
SS: What major technological differences are there when designing the Pelican Spray and Pelican Cargo?
MN: Pelican Cargo shares 80% design commonality with Pelican Spray. It is an extremely similar aircraft with a few key deviations: a larger fuselage for bulk cargo, a nose-door for efficient loading, and a slightly different battery configuration.
SS: Could this model work in the passenger segment?
MN: It certainly could… But not in the next few years.
SS: What are the major challenges you have been facing?
MN: The biggest challenges that we are facing are felt industry-wide. Across the globe, regulatory bodies are struggling to keep up with the pace of innovation in autonomous electric aviation, and that means that there are certain limitations to what we, as a company and as an industry, can achieve commercially. It remains to be seen how regulators will respond to the challenges of integrating this new technology into the airspace. Still, we are confident that it is moving in the right direction.
SS: What are the overall cost and efficiency benefits?
MN: The cost and efficiency benefits of both products are massive. Generally speaking, electric propulsion systems are much simpler and, therefore, less expensive to maintain than the conventional alternative. There is also an obvious reduction in direct operating fuel costs. But cost and efficiency become more interesting when you consider the benefits of automation.
As an autonomous vehicle, Pelican Spray is able to spray with greater precision, therefore increasing efficiency and, ultimately, reducing chemical usage by ~15% for the farmer or spray service provider. It does so by
- Flying closer to the crop canopy, therefore leaving less room for unintended chemical drift.
- Extending its flight path closer to the perimeter of the crop before having to pull up, therefore spraying more of the crop in a single pass.
- Operating spray missions at night when weather conditions are better optimized for chemical application.
Pelican Cargo also offers notable cost and efficiency benefits through automation. The basic idea is that multiple small autonomous vehicles operating around the clock can do the job of one large crewed vehicle operating on a limited basis.
SS: What is the focus this year?
MN: Our primary focus this year is scaling up flight operations around the globe with our launch customers in agriculture and cargo, gaining invaluable experience in reliability testing here in the US, and working towards the flight hours needed to secure additional regulatory approvals.
SS: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?
MN: One aspect of our company that we are most proud of is the culture of our employees. We have an extremely enthusiastic team of diverse, hardworking, and talented people who take pride in our products and our mission as a company. I encourage anyone interested in working with us to check out our careers page. We are hiring!
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