Oakland-based Pyka shares a goal common to many high-tech California aviation startups: to build an autonomous electric passenger aircraft. However, its first steps to get there have taken the company far away from the pack, first to New Zealand and now to banana plantations in Costa Rica and Ecuador, where it’s preparing to field a robotic crop-spraying airplane called Pelican that CEO Michael Norcia says will prove out technology he believes will lead the way to an era of green, low-cost passenger planes.

The fat-bellied, 500-pound plane can carry more than its weight in liquid pesticides or fertilizer, and is engineered to take off and land in a ridiculously short space: 150 feet, half the length of a football field. Someday that short takeoff and landing capability may enable passenger service to be shoehorned into cities and suburbs in a different way than many other electric aviation startups are envisioning. For now, the 28-year-old Norcia is betting that agriculture is a more practical – and lucrative — avenue to pursue. Pyka says the Pelican will have 50% of the operating costs of manned crop-spraying planes and will remove pilots from harm’s way in a business where skimming fields at 140 miles per hour too often leads to accidents and death. And banana plantations, which are the most frequent users of aerial spraying in the world, may be the perfect environment for it to take wing.

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