Agricultural Robots

PBD Logo 4-4-2015

With various robotic aircraft (UAV’s, UAS, drones) becoming available to farmers and agronomists, it is important to carefully weigh the available options. Just as farmers have more than one tractor on the farm where each one is better suited for specific applications, robotic aircraft come in various configurations and sizes.  You wouldn’t think of using your John Deer 9470R or your largest tractor to till your personal garden lot.  Nor would you use your garden tractor to work several hectares of land.  Each machine is better suited for it’s intended application.

Robotic aircraft for farm use are available in several different configurations, not counting hobby aircraft that have been modified. Each one may be better suited for a different application. There are multi-copters, helicopters, fixed-wing military/industrial grade and fixed-wing systems that are designed specifically for agricultural use.

While many of the systems on the market today claim that they work well for agriculture, most are not designed exclusively for agricultural or large land surveying missions.  These “endurance mission”  often take an hour or longer.  Depending on your needs, you may want a fixed wing aircraft with an NDVI camera payload,  HD, RGB or maybe even a second near-infrared lens (NIR), above average autonomous flight controllers as well as aircraft indicators like a gyro, pitot tubes and numerous sensors to monitor wind speed, compass bearing, elevations etc.

In most cases, Electric Propulsion systems will be easier to maintain for an owner who wishes to fly periodical short missions.  Missions of longer than an hour will often involve Nitro powered aircraft, and higher levels of maintenance and servicing.  Rely on a professional to guide your investment in Drone Technology, so you can maximize your ROI.

Robotic aircraft systems are now, more than ever, being designed for farmers who want to get an aerial image of their crops done simply, safely and quickly.  In order to accomplish this, programs are used to layout waypoint navigation with a fixed wing aircraft that can stay aloft for an hour or more.  These units will give tremendous value to any large farm operation.

For grove and orchard inspections, multi-rotors and other VTOL airframes will likely perform better because they can hover and zoom in on trouble spots.  In many cases the VTOL craft can be modified for local application of sprays, or even to chase away animals and certain pests, because of their ability to hover or follow a target at a slow speed.

Most farmers and ranchers want autonomous vehicles with the following qualities:

  • Rapid Return On Investment (2-3 seasons)
  • The system should help identify areas of the crops where yields can be increased and/or pesticide, fertilization or maintenance costs are reduced.
  • The system must not be complicated to operate.
  • They want a system that will operate autonomously and not require a lot of training or experience.
  • The system must perform reliably and consistently.
  • It must be built tough enough to withstand daily use in a farm or industrial environment.
  • It must have autonomous features that tell it to “Return To Home” when its mission is completed or it’s energy supply is depleted, etc.

Robotic Unmanned Aerial Vehicles available for Farm & Industrial use:

Multirotors:

Aerialtroics-Bosch_Drone

One of the best things about a multirotor or helicopter is their ability to hover. They are especially handy if you have a small area to cover that won’t take long to photograph from the air. For example if you simply have a few small test plots that you want to photograph and you don’t have large Tracts (1,000 hectares or more) multirotors can be a great asset. The fact that they hover is especially handy if you are flying in a very congested area like a forest or an orchard where landing is tricky.  Vertical takeoffs or landings are good when you are between fruit trees or vineyards. However if your interest is in surveying large areas of 500-1000 acres or more, multirotors are not the best system because of their relatively short flight time duration. Because multirotors sustain flight by motors and propellers pointing straight up, they use a lot of energy to fly.

Also, most multirotors are slow in covering a lot of ground. When you combine the fact that their ground speed is slow compared to a fixed wing system plus the fact they use a lot of energy just to stay aloft add up to a short flight time, thus very few acres get covered in a single flight. Another element to consider is the challenges multirotors have with high winds.  Fixed wing aerial images that can be captured early in the season, for example with corn, will allow the farmer to take corrective action in this narrow window of time.

During these periods, you may not want a multi-rotor system that may be grounded because of wind. If you live in an area where it is often windy, a multirotor is probably not the best platform for you.   A purpose built ag copter should be the only consideration. There are many cheap model copters on the market, but for a serious farm tool, you should only purchase one that has been built to be used for agricultural purposes.

 

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Helicopters:

We don’t see many small helicopters for agriculture yet because of their complexity, cost and the required regular maintenance. Like a multicopter the biggest benefit is the ability to hover and takeoff and land vertically. However, different than a multicopter gasoline powered helicopters have the ability stay aloft longer and can lift much more weight. The downside of helicopters is cost. Most systems can go as high as $80,000 or more.   The complexity of maintenance and durability are primary concerns with helicopters.

Military or Commercial Airframes modified for Ag use

Penguin
While these systems that feature military grade airframes, autopilots and controls are very reliable systems, they are generally more than a medium sized farmer needs. Many manufacturers tout their airframes as being made to the same specifications used to manufacture drones for the military. Some of these Control manufacturers promote the fact that the autopilot they use is manufactured to military specs which may also mean that you will have to purchase custom controllers and computers to interface with their autopilot. Of course, if you are a large station owner, seeking to monitor stock, pastural land over large areas, power lines, forest reserves, etc, these type of high endurance, long range UAVs will prove to be the most suitable.

Military grade equipment is built to very high standards, but these systems are more costly and complex for the average farmer. Contact Palm Beach Drone at 561-389-1490 to find the best size UAV for your needs.

Aerial imaging systems designed for agricultural use:

There are many robotic aerial imaging systems designed specifically for agricultural use, which are commercially available.   It takes having the right support, software, UAV and video payloads to stitch it all together into a usable product for a farmer, rancher or large land-owner, who needs to learn how to integrate new tools in their operation quickly and without disruption to other farm activities.

That is where we come in.  Palm Beach Drone is poised to introduce you to the leading experts in Agricultural Robotic Technology, find a system that fits your operational needs and budget, to broker the sale and to provide onsite flight training, repairs, local regulatory guidance and service long after the sale is concluded.  We want to be your agricultural robotic systems partner.  We represent over 20 international Aerospace firms with dozens of products that are tailored to specific needs.  Let us help spec the right system for your surveying needs.

Solverpod Software
SolverPod Software by Aglytics

Some of the peculiarities of designing systems for agriculture are subtle but in the end can make a huge impact if the integrator does not carefully address each one.  Geographical features of your land may be better served by 3D mapping or with NDVI video.  For others it is money wasted.  In some areas robotic aircraft can make their biggest impact early in the spring, when coincidently the wind is blowing the hardest.  In some cases, the smaller aircraft may not be able to handle the windy conditions. In fact, some systems do not monitor airspeed with their autopilot, they just monitor ground speed via the GPS. This may not sound like a big deal, but having the ability for the autopilot to know how fast the wind is blowing makes the difference whether you can fly, for how long, or not at all.  At Palm Beach Drone, we take away all of the guess-work.

Most small systems can be launched or hand tossed into the air, and will return to their launch location by gliding in slowly, or using an optional parachute retrieval system.  Smaller aircraft can probably not fly in much wind as the airfoil is designed for slower flight and thus will not handle windy conditions as well as a larger aircraft.  Larger and faster aircraft often use a catapult launcher that allows one person to launch and fly the drone.   Another factor of a system that is designed specifically for agricultural aerial imaging, and which can handle the windy conditions associated with gliding over open plains, is how the computer program creates the flight plan. It should create an interleaving pattern, which reduces the bank during the turns thus reducing the effects of windy conditions. Interleaving patterns may also create higher quality aerial images because the photographs are taken at two different time intervals.

Catapult Launch

Palm Beach Drone specifically designs systems for agriculture that are complete Ready-To-Fly systems, not an “assemble it yourself” system.   The manufacturers we work with all agree that any successful agricultural robotic system must educate their customer on all aspects of using and operating their system, before during and after the sale.

At Palm Beach Drone we are proud to match your farm, grove, or ranch with the right solution to your needs.  We offer solutions for robotic manufacturing, day and night surveillance, NDVI Crop analysis, mapping, surveying and construction monitoring as well as custom built solutions to close the gap between existing technology and the ideas you have in your mind.

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