Top Flight Technologies: Disrupting Agriculture With Hybrid Energy-Powered Drones

  • 17 January 2018
  • Expert Insights

This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.

The following is an interview we recently had with Paul DeBitetto, Vice President, Software Engineering at Top Flight Technologies.

1. What’s the history of Top Flight Technologies? Where and how did you begin?

PD: Top Flight was launched in March 2014. As former alumni from MIT, we were asked to solve two key challenges of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) – extended flight, and enhance the ability to carry payload. The marketplace at that time was largely military multimillion $ very hardened gasoline-based UAVs or on the other end of the spectrum hobby-based battery-operated UAVs or drones with 20-30 minute flight time and very little payload capability.

2. What specific problem does Top Flight Technologies solve? How do you solve it?

PD: Top Flight chose to address the power source which meant a study on power density. It was clear gasoline had the based ratio for performance. With the power source selected chose to hybridize the gasoline engine to produce electricity; the equivalent of a hybrid car in the sky. The majority of this R&D meant miniaturizing a gasoline engine and its coupled generator.

TFT Hybrid Using Conventional Gasoline

For the Airborg 10K, the power generated is similar to a 200lb generator purchased at the local hardware store and can generate enough electricity for 2 households. The Airborg Micro Generator Engine does the same thing and weighs 8 lbs. The patented engineering innovation requires controlling the heat and vibration a virtual fireball that provides continuous power to drive electric propellers, onboard flight systems and online computing, data telecommunications and other electric-powered devices – search lamps, refrigerated containers, computers, spraying equipment, etc. The Airborg™ 10K represents Top Flight’s first commercial UAV with up to 3 hours of flight time, up to 21 lbs of payload and up to 10KW of onboard power for electronics. It flies 40 MPH, can sustain wind gusts of 35MPH and has a 100-mile range.

3. What’s the future of agriculture?

Prediction #1: UAVs have already had a valuable impact to prescriptive agriculture – pinpoint moisture needs; track infestations; provide surveillance/motion tracking. For the most part, these jobs are dull, dangerous and dirty yet are most valuable when data is near-real time.

Prediction #2: What has started with battery drones/UAVs for smaller farmers can be handled even more effectively for industrial farming, farms/crops over 200 acres, and thus not practical for battery-powered drones. Charging batteries is time-prohibitive and costly making it non-scalable for numerous agriculture missions without large fleets of UAVs and batteries.

Prediction #3: Enhanced flight time and enhanced payload UAVs, such as the Airborg 10K address not only inspection/surveillance agriculture applications but spraying/transport applications for these farmers. Now specific missions can be inspection/spraying in real-time.

4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in agriculture?

Trend #1: The Airborg is a game-changer for large agriculture operators – refuel and go; missions can be planned and run in simulation and then executed repeatedly with little operator intervention other than refueling.

Trend #2: Countries such as Japan and Asia no longer have the manpower to address large crops that can be substituted with drones. Japan has been effectively doing this for more than 10 years with a Yamaha RMAX all-gasoline drones. The Airborg has 1/10 of the moving parts of the Yamaha RMax making it very easy for Maintenance Repair Operations (MRO); a benefit of hybridization, no mechanical gearbox, and electric flight motors vs. a single gasoline rotor.

Trend #3: Agriculture continues to consolidate from small farm to multi-thousand acre farming and hence a better target for UAVs such as the Airborg 10K that can substitute applications before restricted to fully-manned fixed-wing airplanes at a fraction of the regular MRO.

Airborg H8 10K – Top Flight Technologies

5. Why is the agriculture industry ripe for disruption?

PD:  Agriculture consistently has grown produce per acre based on predictive and prescriptive intelligence. It has also used automation successfully to minimize human costs and the time to maintain and harvest crops and get them to market.

The enhanced flight-time UAV, with capability to look extremely closely at plants, single trees of fruit, can give farmers immediate insight to corrective actions to get more from each acre, each plant, minimizes human interaction with these prescriptive needs, and even more so, where weather becomes unpredictable.

About Dr. Paul DeBitetto

Dr. Paul DeBitetto leads all Top Flight’s Software and Embedded Systems Development that includes product-related flight control, simulation, computing, sensing, data communications, security-related controls and software solutions to address the needs of both commercial and government requirements. Paul has spent 30 years with Draper Laboratory, most recently serving as Group Leader for the Perception and Localization Systems group within the Embedded Navigation and Sensor Systems division.  He has over 25 years of practical hands-on experience leading teams in the development of multi-sensor perception, navigation, and intelligent control systems for autonomous systems.  Recent research has focused on the development of computer-vision-aided inertial navigation systems for GPS-denied operations, applied to a variety of programs including the Army’s guided parafoil systems, Army soldier navigation, DoD micro-air-vehicles, NASA astronaut tracking, and autonomous driving applications.  Previously, Paul’s work centered on autonomous intelligent control for autonomous rotorcraft (DARPA), NAVY Advanced Seal Delivery System, and NASA’s Space Shuttle on-orbit flight control.  Paul was the original team leader of the MIT/Draper Aerial Robotics team, the first team in the world to demonstrate a fully autonomous helicopter from takeoff to landing at Disney World’s Epcot Center in 1996.  Paul received his Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from State University of New York at Stony Brook, his Master’s Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT, and his Doctorate’s Degree in Electrical and Engineering Computer Science from Boston University.  

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