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DALL·E generated image of a massive blue and yellow quadcopter spraying fertilizer over a field of sunflowers, digital art
DALL·E generated image of a massive blue and yellow quadcopter spraying fertilizer over a field of sunflowers, digital art


Ukraine Will Become An Ag Drone Powerhouse After Invasion

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Much has been made of the successful use of inexpensive drones by Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance in an asymmetric war against Russia’s illegal invasion. But what will happen after Russia is defeated and sent back behind its borders at last?

There have been a few silver linings in the gray cloud of misery and death that is the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the war crimes it is committing there. The resultant energy crisis accelerated the decarbonization of the European economy by a tremendous amount. I predicted and noted a few of the results.

My prediction came in September of last year, prior to Russia blowing up the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in a fit of self-harming and failed propaganda. At the time, I wrote Europe’s Energy Crisis Will Be Short-Lived & Reap Benefits. I assessed all the forms of energy coming and going from and between European countries, especially electricity, and said that electrification would occur much more rapidly and that HVDC interconnects would be greenlit in multiple directions.

I leaned into the phrase “strategic energy interdependence,” which focuses on sharing mostly renewably generated electricity with sufficient good neighbors across a broader range to hedge power security, and to cement trading bonds between non-rogue states. I noted that that this would have significant climate benefits for Europe and the world. (Apparently that note of optimism was deeply appreciated, as the last time I checked, the piece had been at least clicked on by about half a million people, an above average readership for me.)

A mere five months later, I wrote up a review of the European situation where it was clear that my optimism had been well-founded.

“What’s clear is that Europe is accelerating decarbonization, renewables, transmission and electrification initiatives due to this crisis. Heat pump sales are up massively (along with especially UK anti-heat pump FUD campaigns). Insulation retrofits increased a lot. Many more offshore wind farms were approved. HVDC interconnects to the east, west and south were announced. Europeans re-learned to put on sweaters and close windows instead of just turning up the heat.”

The illegal invasion of Ukraine will pay more dividends, although the cost is unbearably high. The silver lining on the fog of war I’m focused on today is agricultural drones.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Arthur Erickson, not the sadly passed Modernist architect, but the completely unrelated founder and CEO of Hylio, a manufacturer and operator of 14-foot (4.3 meter) diameter, 200-pound (90 kg) payload spray drones for agriculture. Precision agriculture is one of the big levers for decarbonizing agriculture and reducing its environmental impacts, so talking with someone who was at the forefront of electrifying core farm processes and improving their application efficiency was very interesting to me.

Erickson had perhaps a normal pathway to being a drone entrepreneur, having done a Bachelor of Science of Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. He grew up in Texas, there are a lot of farms there, and he loved things that flew. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, although of course the path was more circuitous.

There was a lot to like for farmers and society in the drones produced by Hylio and many other firms, including John Deere and DJI, to name the competing 800-pound gorillas in the market.

For farmers, two of Hylio’s biggest drones with trailer cost perhaps 40% of what a modern big tractor costs and are able to cover the same crops with the same amount of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the same amount of time. Farmers can wrench these simple flying machines themselves, as they use basic tools, have vastly shorter wiring runs, and parts are cheap and easily detached and reattached, something increasingly rare and controversially warranty-breaking on modern farm equipment.

And farmers can get the same or better crop results with a lot less product. Erickson indicated that a research paper coming out this year would show potentially 30% to 50% product reduction for the same results. I checked with him a few weeks ago, but it still isn’t published, so the numbers are still not independently peer-reviewed, but aren’t surprising. As Erickson and I discussed, big hexacopter props are above the spray nozzles on the drones, so when the product is released, it is even more aerosolized (in the case of liquid product) and blown directly down to coat the plants thoroughly or reach the ground as appropriate. And it only gets released where the preset pathways based on other aerial drone data gathering leveraging firms like ag data platform PIX4D make it clear that it is required.

The overspray from fixed wing or rotorcraft crop dusters is eliminated. Spraying an entire field when only a patch or three require product is eliminated. Efficiencies are huge.

And there’s another advantage for farmers: much less soil compaction. Studies in the USA found 9% to 55% crop yield reductions due to soil compaction from heavy farm equipment. While drones don’t harvest or till, and aren’t the right tool to put the big loads of fertilizer on fields after harvest, they are the right tool for the several additional passes during growing season with different products, eliminating soil compaction.

Finally, drones don’t care if the soil is wet, while tractors really, really do. Especially fungicide passes become much more timely, as post-rainfall is when it’s most essential.

Cheaper tech that eliminates a tractor or two from the farm equipment fleet, that farmers can wrench themselves, that saves them money on product and gives better yields? What’s not to like for farmers?

And, of course, there’s the benefit for the rest of society. Electricity instead of diesel being burned, with lower resultant CO2 emissions. Lower greenhouse gas emissions as ammonia-based fertilizers turn into both plants, but also high-global warming emissions N20 because less fertilizer is used. Higher crop yields on the same land, so fewer unnecessary concerns about food vs biofuels. A lot fewer avgas-powered flights to dust crops, so more climate benefits. A lot less phosphates, herbicides, and fungicides washing into creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

No wonder that almost 100% of US farms are already using at least aerial surveillance drones, and a substantial portion are doing drone spraying with drone services or their own drones now. No wonder agricultural equipment giant John Deere has a drone spraying product. No wonder global drone leader DJI is big in the agricultural aerial surveillance space and has a line of sprayers as well. And no wonder that there are videos like this one, where a grandmother farmer in China sets up and operates a spraying drone by herself.

I was reminded of my discussions with Erickson yesterday, when, as frequently happens these days, a venture capital firm reached out to ask me for my insights. In this case, Rabo Investments, an offshoot of Dutch multinational banking and financial services firm Rabobank, a fund that focuses on agricultural investments, including decarbonization of agricultural, so I was pleased to assist. While their specific questions were more narrowly market-focused than my knowledge allowed me to answer, I did connect them with Erickson, who hopefully will provide them the insights that they need.

But what does this have to do with the illegal invasion of Ukraine?

Well, one of things that occurs after wars is all of the industries that developed to fight the war are either reduced massively in scope, or transformed into civilian industrial concerns. Most of the major legacy automotive manufacturers scaled up a lot during World War II, and when the war ended they turned to pumping out cheap cars, especially in the USA. As I noted a few years ago, a lot of other manufacturers, including aerospace firms, turned to both civilian aviation but also scooters and motorcycles, something I consider equivalent to the urbanization forces driving electric bike market growth.

And people with useful non-military skills that they developed during the war, like working with machinery or electrical equipment or communications equipment, look for civilian roles that they can perform for good wages or even entrepreneurial success.

And what’s being bought, built, and operated in Ukraine by Ukrainians? Lots and lots of drones. For those who haven’t been paying attention, here’s a brief list of the more interesting ones that are top of mind for me.

Obviously reconnaissance drones are very big. Spotter drones are being used both on land and over seas to identify high value targets and to give very accurate positioning for both artillery and missiles. Recently a Russian military barracks filled with ammunition in the middle of an occupied city was identified by a Ukrainian surveillance drone, and ordnance dropped neatly into it, destroying the important materiel as well as taking the lives of the invaders. Surgical and very effective.

They are being used to identify and target Russian tanks and convoys for Ukrainian artillery as well. A successful missile and sea-borne drone strike on Russian warships off the coast was very likely aided by surveillance drones.

But those sea-borne drones are interesting as well. Reusing a jet ski engine in a low-slung hull packed with explosives, optics, GPS, and computing power, these naval drones have ranges of dozens of kilometers and are very hard to spot or jam. They’ve deeply upset Russian naval tactics and badly damaged the Russian flagship.

For the purposes of this article, however, we’re more interested in the aerial drones. One of the odder ones was a fixed-wing surveillance or light munitions drone that was folded out of cardboard. Plans and essential components were spread through Ukraine’s population and the citizen drone army has been surveilling and harassing Russian troops with cardboard aircraft.

Upscale from that, standard quadcopters have been retrofitted with mechanical actuators that hold and drop explosives on tanks and light trucks. Starting to see where the overlap is coming in?

Upscale from that, recently Ukraine released plans and components for swarm drones to overcome Russian air defense and jamming. These sub-US$200,000 unmanned weapons are intended to be built in garages around the Ukraine and released in waves that prevent Russian air defenses from getting them all, or depleting them before US$2 million missiles follow the swarm to target.

Ukrainians are now among the most drone tech savvy, drone surveillance savvy and drone mechanical actuator enabling savvy populace in the world. It’s possible they have more drone aerospace engineers per capita than any country in the world. They know more about operating drones at the limits and extremes of their capabilities. They have global supply chains in place with every drone and drone component manufacturer in the world. They run rapid prototyping facilities of multiple types on multiple materials to build drone components. They have drone manufacturing workshops all over the country.

And what else are Ukrainians? The farmers for a lot of people in the world. 10% of the world wheat market. 15% of the corn market. 13% of the barley market. Over 50% of the sunflower oil market.

That’s why a big part of the past 18 months’ focus has been on getting agreement on, monitoring, protecting, and continuing safe export of agricultural products past the Russian navy. That’s why Russia unilaterally leaving the grain deal that permitted export of Ukrainian agricultural products in the past couple of days and destroying grain silos has led to a great deal more backroom and public diplomacy.

But fast forward a year or two. The war is over. Russia is behind the pre-2014 borders, or perhaps behind new borders that cede part of the eastern Ukrainian provinces, or declare them to still be ‘in discussion’, but active fighting has stopped. Russia has stopped targeting civilian buildings and other non-military targets in Ukraine.

Will the civilian drone force put down tools and quit working with drones? Will they go back to being shopkeepers or gardeners or letter carriers? Sure, some will. Others will maintain the militarized drone tech, because if there’s one thing Ukrainians know, it’s that Russia is completely untrustworthy and quite possibly will attempt to invade again. It’s that awareness that led to Russia failing miserably in its illegal invasion, after all. Ukraine wasn’t waiting to be rolled over, they had strategies and tactics prepared for the most likely Russian attacks, and they worked.

But a lot of those drone engineers, operators, and intermediaries will look at that amazing set of skills, global supply chains, and capabilities, and ask, “How can we profit from this remarkable confluence of capabilities now that the Russians are back to grumbling in their den?”

And they’ll look at the 55% of Ukraine that is arable land, they’ll look at their success with electric vehicles like bicycles to get around, they’ll look at the incredibly rapidly connection of their grid to Europe’s, they’ll look at their massive crop agricultural base, and they’ll look at how drones didn’t care about mud season and come to the obvious conclusion.

Their path to being agricultural drone entrepreneurs will have been a lot less straightforward than Erickson’s, and certainly not one a guidance counselor would recommend to an advanced placement physics student, but it’s the path that they’ve been forced to walk down due to Russia refusing to understand that the path to wealth in the 21st Century is trade with neighbors and the world, not conquest.

While the agriculture tech investment firm was interested narrowly in the US market, I suggested that they were looking in the wrong direction, and should be looking for opportunities today in Ukraine, so that they have a rock solid basis for a commercial venture or five as soon as hostilities stop. Ukraine is likely to leapfrog the world in the use of drones for precision agriculture in the coming years, and build several companies of the future in the space. That’s a silver lining, even if it does come with an annoying buzz of high-speed rotors.

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is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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