As president of a company that manufactures custom cases for drones and UAVs, I get an early look at advances in the drone industry. One movement that seems to be growing in strength is the use of drones in agriculture.

As we’ve all grown accustomed to the idea of drones used in farming operations, I know this might seem like old news. After all, for several years, these mighty machines have been successfully scouting livestock and crops, capturing data to help farmers make precise season-based decisions, providing inventory information, identifying sick crops, and taking care of pesticide application. But recently, researchers in drone technology have been busy as bees developing what might become the most important technological advancements in agriculture and horticulture so far. These tiny workers, classified as micro drones, as well as regular-sized indoor drones, have been under R&D in institutions around the world for some time, but scientists in the US and Spain have made headway recently that could be bringing drone-based greenhouse applications mainstream soon.

Micro Drone Pollinators – Bring on the RoboBees

Micro drones are just what the name implies—ultra-tiny unmanned aircraft that do a variety of jobs. A major focus of the RoboBee project, a collaboration between researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University, is to develop tiny drone “swarms” capable of artificial pollination, among other things. It’s taken the research team about 12 years to design these little machines, which are capable of tethered flight thanks to tiny artificial “muscles” that allow each drone’s wings to beat 120 times per second. And when I say tiny, I mean really tiny— the drone’s wingspan measures only 1.2 inches. But don’t be fooled by its size. The RoboBee, weighing in at less than a real bee, is the culmination of some seriously heavy scientific collaboration between neurobiologists, electrical and mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and more. The latest collaborative advancement of this super team could be the thing that brings these machines to the mainstream in the coming years.

Perching & Takeoff — Sort of a Big Deal

In a recent article in the journal Science titled “Perching and Takeoff of a Robotic Insect on Overhangs Using Switchable Electrostatic Adhesion,” a Harvard research team reported that they’ve made real progress overcoming one of the greatest challenges in RoboBee advancement: making them stick to stuff. This “stick-ability” is important because without it RoboBees are forced to stay aloft at all times. Constant flight creates mechanical fatigue and quickly drains available on-board power—a particularly critical factor in the operation of such small, battery-powered machines. However, the researchers have figured out that electrostatic forces can keep the mechanical insects stuck to various surfaces, including the undersides of a leaves. They also reported that generating this electrostatic force required less power than that needed to stay in flight.

Mapping the Indoor Environment

For a super tiny machine, pollination is one thing, but monitoring indoor variables is another. At this point, that type of data collection requires a larger drone. While the operation of larger drones doesn’t pose much of issue in wide-open, outdoor contexts, the inside of a greenhouse is a limited space that presents significantly greater challenges.

A team of researchers at the Centre for Automation and Robotics in Spain are working hard and making some serious progress in overcoming those challenges. Just this year, the team published the paper “Heterogeneous Multi-Robot System for Mapping Environmental Variables of Greenhouses” in the journal Sensors. In the paper, the scientists describe a heterogeneous robot team they’ve developed to monitor environmental variables of greenhouses. The system includes both aerial and ground drones.

Using an advanced multi-sensor application, the researchers have figured out how to enable these drones to communicate with one another and to “understand” their surroundings. And by understand their surroundings, I mean they can avoid smashing into one another, the greenhouse walls, and the plants therein. The multi-drone system also includes sensors that allow the drones to measure the temperature, humidity, luminosity, and carbon dioxide concentrations in soil and at various heights in the greenhouse environment. Plus, as with most horticultural drones out there, some are fitted with cameras that allow for easy visual monitoring.

Drone-powered greenhouse automation probably won’t be taking flight this year or next, but we can rest assured that, considering the sort of advancements we’ve seen just this year, this technology is definitely headed our way soon. Happy gardening! MY

What are your thoughts on drones in agriculture? Are you eager to get your greenhouse robot-ready, or would you prefer to keep things more hands on? Send your thoughts to us.