A 22 year old Product Manager, Bookworm, and Writer.
Have you ever thought about where you get your food from? No, I’m not talking about using Instacart on your phone or even going to the local Walmart or Safeway. Where do you really get your food from? Let’s take the example of a burger. What are the components of a burger? Cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon, onion, pickles and chilles. There are also condiments such as mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, relish, or “special sauces”, and last but not least, the bun.
Let’s take just one ingredient: tomatoes — the number one plant in the edibles category. They are planted either late Spring or early Fall. They are quite greedy — they require 6–8 hours of afternoon sunlight, a 3-feet pot for each plant, pH levels only between 6.2 to 6.8 and at least 4 inches of compost. Keep monitoring for 80 days, and voila, you got your ripe tomatoes! Of course, you also have to keep pests out, make sure it does not get humid and keep water levels optimal. All this just for one ingredient of one food item that you consume.
Farming is a huge industry. There are currently over 7.3 billion people in the world, with an expected population of over 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 in 2050. With such a monumental need of food, we need to ensure that we have enough resources, and that we are using them in the most optimal way. Fruit and vegetable farmers responding to a Feedback survey reported that they wasted up to 37,000 tonnes of produce every year — around 16 per cent of their crop. This quantity would be enough to provide 250,000 people with their recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day for a year.
What can we do? We need better irrigation management, better mapping and better control over how we grow the crops and vegetables. Enter Drones.
According to a Dronefly press release, the use of drones in the agriculture can basically be boiled down to four segments: Crop field scanning with compact multispectral imaging sensors, GPS map creation through on-board cameras, heavy payload transportation, and livestock monitoring with thermal-imaging camera-equipped drones.
In simple terms, you can scan your crop, map the surface, deliver items and count animals using drones.
What is interesting is the sheer labor and effort it took to accomplish the above mentioned four tasks before drones came into the picture. Farmers needed huge air-crafts, heavy lifting machinery, trucks, and manual labor to accomplish the above mentioned tasks. And now they are solved using a 50 pound device that has four vertically oriented propellers.
And when you have time, check out the full, beautifully designed infographics that tells you how exactly drones achieve their use cases.
When I started writing this article, I thought the main focus should be agriculture. However, as I kept searching I realized just how versatile drones are. Fortunately, I remembered a friend of mine, Adyasha Dash, who works for a company that is the world’s leading VTOL drone producer located in Switzerland — Wingtra AG.
I got to chat with her and learn some interesting information on how Wingtra grew, faced the challenges in creating an autonomous drone and where this could lead us. Below are some of the highlights from the conversation!
When you think about drones, there are two major types. Multicopters — these take-off and land vertically, have excellent precision, but cannot cover lot of area. And Fixed Wings — these use wings to generate lift, can travel long distance but hard to use for inexperienced drone users since they need to be hand launched. We wanted to bridge this gap. We wanted to leverage the usability factor of a Quadcopter with the large coverage that you obtain from Fixed Wings.
When I started, we were around 15 people 3 years back, when we had a pilot at all times to monitor the drone. Back then the drone was basically a cardboard with 2 motors. And now, we have a fully autonomous product. We wanted our main use case to be mapping and surveying for professional use such as mining, animal counting, mapping a topography, and so on. It started with us flying the device once a week to now it being flown more than 1000 times a week around the world.
We thought it would be, but we found greater traction in mining and surveying. Imagine miners who want to know how much earth has been exactly dug out and get a topographic map of the area — that’s a major focus.
On the other hand, you have researchers. Zoology researchers who would like to survey a land or sea to count the number of animals/mammals present and researchers in Greenland who study how climate change effects glaciers are a huge group as well!
The most important part of the technology is the transition phase — to be able to combine the functionality of a quadcopter and a fixed wing. This took us the longest time to achieve.
The second most gripping challenge was safety, since this device is interacting with people out there. For academic purposes, it was okay when there were a few failures. But, when you start to sell commercially, it had to be 100/100 so people who’ve never seen it before can still use it safely.
There are multiple sensors on the device that make it work — an air speed sensor, a magnetic compass to measure orientation, inertial measurement unit and a small micro-controller that takes in all of this input.
On the user’s side, there is a tablet which has a very simple UI. All they have to do is denote the area they want to map in terms of a polygon, and press Start. The plane begins to deconstruct and figure out the most efficiency way to map, takes hundreds of pictures and analyzes this data to show to user .
If the battery is fully charged, it can basically cover 240 American Football fields. (Do you know the area of one field?)
I think we have made good progress in the aerial imagery and data collection part. However, the data we collect even in a single flight can be quite large: 1000s of images summing to tens of GB. So, an interesting challenge to solve next would be to make the data handling and transfer from the drone to cloud work seamlessly.
And of course, you can never forget the safety side.
Talking about the drone world itself, up until now most drones have been used within the line of sight. The challenge would be build drones that are safe enough to be operated beyond visual of sight as well. Another challenge is to incorporate the air traffic to find the best possible routes of travel.
There is no story complete without Amazon peeking in for a glance. Amazon was granted a new patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a delivery drone that can respond to human gestures. From two-day delivery to two-hour delivery, Amazon’s next vision is to get this down to less than 30 minutes.
According to the patent, the drone’s communication system would include an array of sensors, including a depth sensor and cameras to detect visible, infrared and ultraviolet light. The drones would be able to recognize hand and body gestures, human voices and movement, such as a person walking closer to the drone or away from it (It can even detect when people are shooing it away!).
But, it’s not just the e-commerce giant in the US. Alibaba, the Amazon equivalent in China, has also got its hands dirty in the drone delivery business. However, they view drones not as a last-mile problem solver, but more so as an intermediate heavy-traffic-skipping vehicle.
Currently, drone delivery is only for the 22.5-square-mile Shanghai Jinshan Industrial Park, but there are plans to expand the program to other cities in coming years.
To conclude, the era of drones has shifted from being merely a device used to take pictures to a device that will (hopefully) solve some of the gripping problems around the world surrounding food, safety and transportation.
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