In perhaps one of the most bizarre, don’t-try-this-at-home moves of the drone industry last year, the team behind a Latvian drone company last year strapped a 220-pound human dressed in a Santa company to a drone and flew him through the air.
That company was 6-person drone startup AirBoard, which makes drones targeted at the agricultural industry. But what does Santa have to do with agricultural drones?
AirBoard’s drone, the AirBoard AGRO, is designed to assist in aerial pesticide spraying in steep and mountainous vineyards. Its creators claim the drone can carry up to 60 liters. Flying a 220-lb Santa through the air via drone was their way of proving it to members of the press, rather than, you know, just flying pesticides through the air and spraying them over a field.
The company is helmed by Elviss Straupenieks, a young Latvian entrepreneur who started the company when he was 16. (He’s also the youngest person in Latvia to register a business and was named as one of the top 25 under 25 in Europe by Nordic Business Report.)
A human-carrying drone! A budding young entrepreneur! That wasn’t the only way that AirBoard CEO Straupenieks pitched himself to me (full disclosure: I get lots of bad, boring pitches from drone companies, so this one truly was fascinating to me).
Straupenieks’ pitched his company using just about every Silicon Valley trope in the book. It’s backed by an investment firm helmed by the son of billionaire Tim Draper (that firm also invests in VR, AR and blockchain companies, Straupenieks told me — I told you there would be lots of Silicon Valley buzzwords in here!). One of AirBoard’s employees holds the title of the fastest drone racing pilot in the world, according to FAI 2018 standards. The company started as a flying motorcycle company (which is the period when Tim Draper’s son, Adam Draper, backed AirBoard). “We realized there wasn’t a realistic business case besides entertainment,” Straupenieks said, referring to his company’s pivot to making agricultural drones.
But shall I tell you about the drone itself? Because, if it lives up to the hype, it’s actually pretty cool.
Straupenieks told me his drone is 80% more precise in pesticide usage than an airplane or a helicopter. AirBoard also claims their AGRO drone is 50x faster than manual spraying and twice as cost effective than using a helicopter service.
“We can use it to employ pesticides in a much more targeted place, which is better for the customer because they don’t waste money on pesticides, but it’s better for the environment too,” Straupenieks said.
AirBoard designed their own flight control systems to enable the stability of the drone. The 100% electric-powered drone also uses an in-house-built battery, which has custom cool systems, speed control and wiring, all designed to enable high discharge rates (essential to carrying that much weight).
Other competitors in the space include drone manufacturer DJI, which makes the DJI Agras MG-1, an octocopter designed for precision variable rate application of liquid pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. That drone can carry up to 10 kg liquid payloads, including pesticides and fertilizers, and can cover an area of 4,000-6,000 m² in 10 minutes. DJI claims that’s 40 to 60 times faster than manual spraying operations.
The AirBoard AGRO helps the environment! It helps farmers save money? So why does a drone company like this resort to pulling off a big marketing stunt like a flying Santa to pitch their product?
“You don’t realize what 220 pounds is, but once you tie it to a human, people can get excited about it,” Straupenieks said.
So is the need to create eye-catching marketing content a sign that people are losing interest in the drone industry? Straupenieks assured me the answer is ‘no.’
“We don’t feel pressured by saturation of the market to push out stunt use cases,” he said. “We got our clients in Latvia and Germany without the Santa stunt.”
So then, why do it? The simple answer: storytelling.
“Our audience and our market is vineyards, and they don’t care that much about lifting a Santa besides it being a good opener,” he said. “If you have issues about drone safety and capacity, this human-carrying drone proves it is redundant.”
And while farmers may lend him an ear to pitch his company, Straupenieks wants it to be something the whole world talks about.
“This is an eye-catcher, something that goes viral on Facebook.”