Woburn drone maker aims to replace the crop duster - The Boston Globe

If Hollywood decides to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “North by Northwest”, the classic attack from the sky may not come from a buzzing crop duster airplane.

The new tech for dusting corn fields replaces those old prop planes with the latest in self-guided drones. Not as loud — but maybe just as scary? Power Sprayer

Woburn drone maker aims to replace the crop duster - The Boston Globe

And Adam Bercu, cofounder and chief executive of crop-spraying-drone maker Guardian Agriculture in Woburn, actually knows a thing or two about building scary machines. A decade ago, he was a repeat champion on the reality show BattleBots, building dueling robots that crushed the competition.

Guardian Ag’s autonomous SC1 drone isn’t suited for battle, however. The 500-pound machine looks more like a bright green washing machine on skis and carries gallons of pesticides or other treatments. It’s also cheaper and more precise in applying treatments than crop dusting airplanes, Bercu said.

“We really worked backwards from the problem . . . and thought, how can we democratize this and make it easy and cheap,” Bercu said. “There are a lot of acres in this country that go untreated. Farmers lose a lot of yield, increasing food and energy prices.”

Guardian announced new funding last week, raising $20 million in a deal led by Fall Line Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm focused on the agriculture market. Guardian is partnering with agribusiness giant Wilbur-Ellis, which sells treatments and runs a huge crop dusting fleet, and already has $100 million of orders for its drones to spray fields in California’s Central Valley.

With four, 6-foot-long propellers, the battery-powered craft is larger and heavier than most drones and qualifies as an “electric vertical take-off and landing,” or eVTOL, device with the Federal Aviation Administration. Guardian got the first permission from the FAA for nationwide deployment of eVTOL in April. Software guides the drone’s path over farms, but a human operator must monitor each flight for safety and make sure not to fly over people not involved with the drone.

The drones are designed and built at Guardian Ag’s headquarters in Woburn, in the same building once occupied by flying-car startup Terrafugia. The company currently employs about 45 people and is hiring. Terrafugia had 250 employees in the building, Bercu noted.

“There aren’t many places in Boston to find an airplane factory that we can just pick up,” Bercu said. “We were lucky to find that.”

Guardian is the second local drone company to win permission for commercial service from the FAA, following American Robotics in Waltham, according to Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics.

“While the adoption of drones for commercial applications has been slow to date, these approvals open up opportunities in markets like agriculture, delivery, infrastructure, and environmental inspections,” Ryden said.

Other drone-related companies in the region that have raised money in the past year include sensor tech company MatrixSpace in Burlington, aquatic drone maker Jaia Robotics in Bristol, R.I., indoor drone maker Corvus robotics in Boston, and AutoPylot, a drone software company in South Burlington, Vt., according to data from PitchBook.

Bercu, who grew up in Miami, said Greater Boston is the best place for startups in his industry. He moved to the area about 14 years ago — ”we were part of the Florida brain drain” — and worked at venture capital firm Bolt and Harvard’s Center for Brain Science before founding Guardian in 2017.

“There are not many places in the world that you can do this, especially with the battery technology that really makes this happen,” he said. “Boston is an incredible place.”

Woburn drone maker aims to replace the crop duster - The Boston Globe

2 Cycle Carburetor Aaron Pressman can be reached at Follow him @ampressman.