Inside Raven

Flying High to Support our Customers from the Sky

An Audacious Agricultural Airspace

Picture this: on a warm day, a man strolls across a field, sliding his aviator sunglasses onto his face to block the sun's glare. It's summer, and the fields are turning a bright green with weeks' worth of rain allowing them to flourish. He steps up to a small, bright yellow plane waiting for him alongside the field. Raising one arm, he lifts himself into the plane, swinging in through the window and settling into his seat. He prepares for take-off. Moments later, the plane cruises over the field, dusting the crops with chemical to remove insects. Within 15 minutes, he makes four passes across the field at 140 miles per hour, leaving the field undamaged and protected.

Behind the scenes, Raven technology is at work. AgSync, part of our Slingshot® offerings, is integral to the Connected Workflow™, which syncs the office to the field and then back again. It allows ag operations to meet and beat the tough assignment of managing large fleets, multiple locations, limited personnel and more. It's used by retailers, foresters, seed companies, enterprise farms, and — you guessed it — aerial applicators. One of those users is the AgriFlite team, which specializes in aerial spraying, dry applications, and mosquito spraying. Their fleet? Ag planes for flight operations.

Aerial application accounts for up to one fourth of the delivery of crop production products in the U.S. Aircraft is valuable for farmers because it covers so much area quickly without disturbing soil or the growing crops. The incredible speeds that aircraft reach are important because pests and diseases spread rapidly. By covering more ground faster, ag pilots can protect crops and ensure quality yields.

Piloting ag aircraft is an extremely demanding job, as pilots are required to manage a variety of factors at one time. They must follow GPS guidance on where to spray in the field, check wind, settle over the field within 10 feet (3.05 m), spray the field, raise and lower the plane, watch for obstacles, and keep the plane flying safely at 140 mph (225.3 km/h).

Currently, there are around 2,700 professional aerial application operators and pilots in the U.S., most of whom have thousands of hours of flight experience. Pilots are required to meet state and federal requirements for flying skills and chemical handling.

Preparing for Take-Off

AgriFlite hosts continuing education events for pilots from around the Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois areas. Customers are invited to attend and see the planes firsthand, and many of these customers use Raven technology. Account Manager Helen Hoffman attends these events to meet with our customers and see how our technology can best serve their needs. As part of one of Helen's visits, she connected with the AgriFlite team about having two Raven software engineers, Kyle Sonaty and Bruce Schmidt, join a flight.

Software Engineer Kyle Sonaty takes off with a custom applicator in the plane.

An Aerial In-Cab Experience

Principal Software Engineer Kyle Sonaty said the experience was incredible and showed him how difficult an ag pilot's job can be.

An ag pilot's job is dangerous — they fly within 10 feet of the ground at speeds up to 140 mph (225.3 km/h). They fly close to telephone poles, trees, and the ground. The G-force on these flights varies; for Kyle's flight, it was around 2.5 Gs. For people riding in the plane for the first time, it's a stunning amount of force pressing on you during the flight. It can cause nausea, vomiting, and passing out during or after the flight. For the pilots, it's another day at the office.

It's one thing for pilots to tell you what they do, and it's another thing to experience what they do."

— Kyle Sonaty, Software Engineer

Kyle and Bruce said the flights feel like two minutes long, but are around 15 minutes long in reality.

That was an experience I will not quickly forget. If you go on a regular plane ride, they'll take you up on a nice, gentle bank — not this pilot. He flew us around like he was actually applying the field."

— Bruce Schmidt, Software Engineer

You can watch pilots spray a field and that still doesn't even compare to experiencing it firsthand. It's a dangerous occupation. Imagine flying in three dimensions. To actually experience that in the cab of a plane is amazing."

— Bruce Schmidt

These planes are currently in the process of getting certified to spray spongy moths — an invasive species formerly known as gypsy moths — in Pennsylvania. This ride-in event was part of the larger certification test process. Aerial spraying is the most efficient way to eradicate the insect, which defoliated 326,124 acres in Pennsylvania in 2021 despite spraying 203,569 acres. A tree begins to significantly suffer when 30 percent or more of its leaf surface is lost — so it’s critical that aerial application is approved to prevent further demolition. Once these planes are approved, ag pilots will move quickly to spray fields to protect these trees.

For Kyle and Bruce, it was a memorable experience that gave them an inside look at an ag pilot's daily life and a new understanding of the dangers of the occupation. The knowledge they gained will drive their work further as Raven continues to innovate and create technology that improves the world.