Drones hold promise to ease scouting, spraying

Drone Volt is selling one of the world’s strongest mass-produced drones into the Canadian market, the Hercules 20 (H-20).

“It’s probably one of the strongest in terms of payload that you will be able to find out of a company. If you are looking for anything that is that strong right now, you will have to go custom build,” said Martin Laporte, chief executive officer of Drone Volt Canada.

Drone Volt also operates in France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, United States, Switzerland and Indonesia.

The H-20 carries up to 25 kilograms and flies up to 50 km-h.

Two motors are mounted on each of the foldable four stabilizing arms, and the 66-centimetre-wide propellers can be detached without tools.

The H-20 is used for surveillance and inspection with the use of onboard sensors and camera, mapping with lidar and laser scanners, material transport, the film industry and spraying in agriculture.

The Hercules 20 Spray offering has a carbon frame with aluminum fasteners, a foldable three-metre-wide boom, and comes with a 12-litre tank.

Eight flat nozzles fixed at a 110 degree spray angle, apply up to three litres of product per minute, and can spray 4.4 acres in 10 minutes when applying one litre per minute.

Laporte said spraying with drones is already occurring in vineyards and smaller, higher value crops, but he doesn’t foresee drones replacing large sprayers in broad acre production.

“Drone spraying in agriculture will never replace large tractor and airplanes. It’s a solution that will replace a guy walking around in the field with a backpack full of liquid. It is a lot more efficient and can cover a lot more acres,” Laporte said.

He said there will be a fit for drones to identify and deal with problem spots such as herbicide resistant weeds.

Drone Volt offers a lineup of five drones and there is also a full suite of options available for many applications.

“You’re going to start by monitoring the nitrogen level with let’s say a multispectral camera. From there, you will define some area that has some issue and you will, and waypoint the drone and send it right away,” Laporte said.

If needed, growers can perform a second flight using a drone equipped with a multispectral camera to diagnose possible problem areas.

“From there we will provide a flight plan. So the same day or a few hours after, the drone can be sent into the field to fix an issue,” Laporte said.

Drone operators can use the company’s app to control the flight plans.

Laporte said drone use can greatly reduce the amount of traffic on a field, which can help reduce the spread of soil borne disease.

“The less impact you have physically on the field the less trouble you’re going to get. It’s going to be easier because you won’t spread disease all around,” Laporte said.

Drones have moved beyond novelties and are now robust and reliable platforms. It is the tools and control systems that are being enhanced to make the systems more useful to farmers.

Sensor development is where the action is when it comes to drones right now and Drone Volt has established itself in this realm also with the acquisition of Aerialtronics in 2017.

Aerialtronics recently released the new Pensar camera that has dual spectrum digital vision and artificial intelligence (AI) that allows real-time analysis of images and can co-ordinate issues by itself.

“It has a dual sensor with a 30-times optical zoom camera and a thermal sensor combined with it,” Laporte said.

“Because of the video chip that is inside the camera that is able to do calculations in real time this camera could be able to detect the amount of green on the field and give you an estimate percentage right away. In the opposite way it can tell you how dense your crop is and tell you an anomaly by itself if it’s not dense enough.”

He said more research is needed to teach the AI in the camera to identify specific problems in a crop.

However, the Pensar camera is already being used by law enforcement.

“We have one of the systems sold to the department of Homeland Security in the United States. That system is used to differentiate between a walking human and a coyote,” Laporte said.

“That camera has the ability to count cars moving and stuff like that. If it is taught the right way, it will be able to count livestock.”

He said the technology already exists to enable drone to identify and treat problem areas in a field such as disease or herbicide-resistant weeds, but crop protection companies have to test to see if their products are still effective when applied by drones.

“Right now, the issue is coming largely from pesticide companies, not from Transport Canada itself,” Laporte said.

“Regulation wise, I have a bunch of my customers that already have the permit to be able to spray and deliver the product. So the issue came from the company that said that we did not approve our product to be UAV airborne.”

He said Transport Canada sees product applied by drones similarly to when it’s applied by plane or helicopter, so operators have to achieve an aerial application licence.

The next step, he said, is to have crop protection companies complete the required research to establish rules for drone application of their products.

“This is actually a good thing for the drone industry. Because we don’t want them (drone operators) to go in a place where it (chemicals) doesn’t belong or it’s not safe enough,” Laporte said.

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