Tuesday TED Talk: The future of flying robots and precision farming

Drones, flying robots, whatever you call them, drones are here and about to get a whole lot smarter. During a TED Talk in Pennsylvania, Vijay Kumar and his team...

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Drones, flying robots, whatever you call them, drones are here and about to get a whole lot smarter. During a TED Talk in Pennsylvania, Vijay Kumar and his team have created autonomous aerial robots inspired by honeybees. These make some very interesting assumptions that dramatically differ from the consumer drones we have today.

Instead of being concerned about avoiding collisions, these expect it and much like the honeybees in nature, they recover from a collision as if it never happened. Due to their small, light-weight design, the drone version of the honeybees are shown crashing into each other, bouncing straight off and recovering flawlessly. This simulates what would happen if they were to come in contact with buildings or even people.

Even more interesting is the demonstrations of drones working together as a swarm. Its quite amazing to see a human grab 1 of 4 drones and have the other 3 understand that one has been captured and react by swarming around the human.

Kumar also discusses the advancements in drones that is just around the corner. His team have experimented with sophisticated mapping of environments, and not leveraging on-board GPS like consumer drones. Instead it combines accurate cameras and sensors can give the drone an understanding of the 3D space around it using a method of triangulation. One great benefit of this is that the drone could understand where objects are and like self preservation, be programmed to never run into objects.

This data is actually so good, they can reconstruct a 3D environment from it, allowing security or defence forces to safely remotely map an environment they’ve never been to before. It’s easy to see our fire fighters leveraging this technology to ensure people are out of a building in the event of a fire and without endangering a single human life.

As we know from our smart phones and laptops, the one downside to lithium-ion batteries are that they are heavy and don’t last long. This is where the smaller, lighter drones that have increased flight times may work in teams (or swarms) to co-ordinate with each other and scan different parts of the building, then send the data between each other to form a full map for each of them.

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Roboticist Kumar, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science suggests one real-world application for the flying robots is something called Precision Farming. With 5cm resolution, these drones would be able to use image recognition to fly by the trees in an orchard and report back to the farmer the condition and quantity of fruit in their farm.

The software could then make recommendations about the best course of action that day to increase the yield. This could revolutionise the faming industry. Just like personalised medicine aims to treat each person with medicine specifically to their needs, Precision Farming would build a unique picture of every tree on the farm.

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Here we see a raw output from the drone’s cameras and sensors, a colour image, an infrared image, a thermal camera and a combined three-dimensional map of the orchard.

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While seeing a row of orange trees is interesting, sometimes the farmer wants a complete picture and with the data captured by these drones can easily identify problem areas and address them with changes in water, fertiliser and pesticides to optimise yields.

Kumar isn’t stopping there. He suggests this data can be used to detect the health of each plant, even using the images of each detect plant diseases and report to the farmer so it can be addressed before the yield is lost. Here’s the kicker.. Kumar suggests that by using robot swarms to do this scanning and data collection, farmers can improve the farming yield by 10% and decrease inputs like water by as much as 25%. Considering we have farmers buying in water to keep their trees alive, this could be a massive financial gain by slashing a quarter of their annual water bill.

They often say that if you’re industry hasn’t been disrupted by technology yet, then its next. While the farming industry already has driverless tractors, the industry is about to be revolutionised.

Please, do yourself a favour and go watch the amazing talk over at TED.com.

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