The commercial UAS Bubble

An Article by  Dr. Nir Tenenbaum (DVM)

The commercial/Civil UAS Bubble?

On April 14, 2014, news broke that Google acquired a drone manufacturer that was just investigated for acquisition by Facebook, following Amazon’s announcement on December 2013, of its Prime Air project, planning to offer 30-minute deliveries via drones and sending an already fueled arena atwitter, declaring the imminent delivery of pizza, beer and flowers right to your doorstep. 

The promise of the commercial drone market, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), has been a high-profile subject in recent years, as evident by the increase in financial speculations and publications celebrating its imminent success, which has been reinforced by a rise in the number of private manufacturers and investments worldwide.  Companies are dedicating themselves to the projected future roles of commercial UAS in our daily lives and are brimming with anticipation for the floodgates to open.

But what if this is just wishful thinking?

 To see the original article go here.

Economic bubbles are typically defined as an unjustified run-up in asset prices, which is not supported by the fundamental factors of supply and demand that traditionally affect traded commodity or financial instruments[1]. By definition a bubble is a non-sustainable pattern, which in this case can be expanded to include the psychological gap in the global mindset between current trends, hopes and wishes, and the realistic hard facts that may apply when one objectively analyzes the overall timeframe and market conditions.

 Electric cars (EC) began as a concept over 100 years ago and launched into everyday reality by the 1990s, with the introduction of the GM EV1, and later with its unfortunate failure by 2002. Nevertheless, the idea survived, thrived and seemed just around the corner by 2007, as oil prices climbed and “green” lobbies became stronger, driving every known manufacturer to test its EC concepts, confident that the right design – their right design – could revolutionize the market and take off in what seemed to be the era of the hybrid car.

 In a similar pattern, model aviation was first introduced almost 80 years ago with RC model aircrafts, changing into actual mission UAS in the 1970s, as more and more military systems operated in the field, evolving constantly into new technological capabilities of platforms and payloads. The semi-recent decline in military operations and expenditures along with increased globalization, access to materials and information and open source databases expended the model aircraft community and presented the opportunity for a “civilian-commercial” UAS market, bringing forth new manufacturers that produce complex, semi- and fully-autonomous technologies.

The great surge of interest in the concept of the electrical car was also unmistakably evident in the last two decades, with hundreds of articles promoting the concept and celebrating its arrival and market potential, at times ignoring actual market data – a trend that is evident even now, with the arrival of 3rd generation models celebrated as the new EC revelation. Regardless of recent relative success, no EC company has yet to show actual profit solely based on its product line, making the close future and role of the electrical vehicles vague.

When one scrutinizes the actual data, published by supporters of the EC cause (Global EV outlook 2012), one realizes that after 25-plus years of progress, and despite huge theoretical potential, electric cars still make up only 0.02 percent of all motor vehicles, representing a total of roughly 180,000 vehicles on the road globally, versus just an average of 18 million standard vehicles sold each year[2]. Nevertheless, efforts continue, recognizing new complexities, creating new long-term strategy, analyzing hindering difficulties in the product’s own ecosystem and openly recognizing that the “green gospel” may need more time and some modifications.

 The commercial UAS “gospel,” excluding “model aircrafts,” is evident by the hundreds of companies, academic institutions, and government organizations developing various UAS designs across all categories: military, government and commercial[3].  Based on the foreseen regulatory environment, the United States Federal Aviation Agency, for example, projected a fleet of 10,000 active small UASs by 2016, growing to 25,000 units by 2021, as well as a projected increase to 30,000 units by 2030.  On the same dedicated pattern, publications state that the UAS market will expand dramatically by 2025, with a projected worth of over $82 billion[4] and employ around 100,000 workers[5].

  This optimistic approach is not without merit as evident by recent regulatory developments, primarily due to the fact that the commercial UAS market has many untapped uses and expansion possibilities, including day-to-day commercial photography and mapping, agriculture, security awareness, disaster response, communication and broadcast, cargo transport, spectral/thermal analysis, infrastructure monitoring and maintenance, environmental monitoring, wildlife protection, archeology and much more; secondly, the emphasis placed on small-scale, locally operated systems; and finally over the “recency bias,” causing us to expect whatever happened most recently to continue even though the facts tell us it might be unlikely[6].

 While market drivers and dynamics among UAS segments differ significantly, they share common objectives: to provide a service that cannot be accomplished by manned aircraft and/or to perform an existing manned operation at a lower cost (“The dull, the dirty and the dangerous”). The investments and technological advances in the UAS field, made by military organizations, have generated a growing interest in their potential use for civil, government, and scientific research, as well as their potential commercial applications.

 Simultaneously, extensive efforts are ongoing to overcome the hurdles the market face, primarily from a privacy and regulatory standpoint[7], making sense of export regulations, and outlining the proper national and international integration of systems to current airspace conditions.  The process seeks to accommodate unmanned systems based on the premise that operational safety must come first, that they will present what can be defined as a minimal and acceptable level of risk to the general public, and that they will not harm, infringe or adversely impact other users[3].

 Military-grade unmanned aerial systems are generally systems, made by recognized, authorized defense contractors, and are operated almost exclusively by national and federal agencies. This may include systems used for civilian missions, such as search and rescue, firefight etc, as long as they are primarily marketed for defense purposes, meet current regulations and are purchased and operated by a governmental agency that is able to allocate the ample funds and resources necessary to maintain such a program on a national level.

 In contrast, we may refer to civilian and/or commercial unmanned systems as such that are primarily produced by private manufacturers with no previous or formal defense contracts in play, which are generally operated by private owners or small agencies, with no required regulatory framework. These systems are marketed primarily for commercial use, which may be relevant to security needs at times, such as civilan ISR use. The civilian systems category includes systems originating from RC models, usually employing smaller-scale systems, with close range operation, a more cost effective price tag and simpler, non-ITAR regulated components and payloads.

 The combination of expected cost, requirements and preliminary regulations that focus on the easier, low-weight category commercial segment of under 55 pounds3, drives most manufacturers – veteran and novice alike – to invest in the smaller-scale systems category for commercial uses, as fixed wing to multi rotor platforms that can be used locally tend to have a more cost-effective spectrum, and have simpler operational schemes, payloads, maintenance and logistical needs. In analyzing market potential and economic viability, it is imperative to separate these small UAS from popularly flown remotely piloted aircraft, which are not used or designed with a specific mission in mind.  Unfortunately, even these pose a substantial risk for the future of the entire commercial UAS market, in any event of a single disaster.

 It is only human to expect things to happen in the near future, and there is no dispute over the amount of research and development going into UAS worldwide, but long-term strategy cannot be accomplished without a periodic, objective reality check.  Putting aside the anecdotal trend of local delivery systems, most enthusiasts mix different UAS segments, forgetting that UAS’ are not toys or solutions by themselves, but are rather complimentary tools, to be employed in parallel with other systems, and that they must come into play only after an integration of data necessitates their operation. Moreover, what commercial system can be realistically expected to integrate harmoniously with existing airspace systems? Is it a risk worth taking in lower altitudes over populated areas? Or in higher altitudes, with an average of 5,000 passenger-planes flying at any given time over the US alone?

 Many manufacturers expect and demand an immediate ease on UAS restrictions, but while operations, technical complexity and sophistication have significantly increased in recent years, they were not accompanied by the same history of compliance and oversight as manned aviation, resulting in a significant gap that has led to a commercial UAS ban in the US since 2007. This ban does, however,  exclude special permits, issued for groups that can demonstrate mitigating circumstances for using a UAS, such as for research or testing. A tedious regulatory process is ongoing in Europe and the US, focusing on finding and formulating the ways to balance safety, the market’s needs and technological innovation, while dealing with  other crucial issues, such as privacy and civil liberties.

 The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agency for example, notes that a number of civil aviation authorities have adopted a policy stating that UAS must meet the same safety code as manned aircraft, and that they must adhere to the rules governing the flight of manned aircraft, and meet equipment requirements applicable to the airspace class in which they intend to operate; while air traffic, airspace and airport regulations should not be significantly changed. As they see it, commercial UAS must be able to comply with existing codes to the greatest extent possible.

 The applications of UAS of the national/defense segment are certain to become more prominent in our daily lives, as their quality, funding and operational costs are interconnected. However, while the economic drivers are very clear on paper, an earnest look at present market conditions and future conceivable requirements illustrates the extent of the preliminary threshold new commercially-oriented manufacturers must cross. Crossing this threshold requires great financial investment, achieving full safety standard compliance, installing appropriate backup and safety systems, performing design and airworthiness checks, acquiring pilot certifications, following maintenance regulations, complying with ATC regulations, and a process that clarifies privacy issues along with the crews’ liability. The nature of the current civil-commercial market may clash with the regulatory vectors, which in turn may dissolve the validity and viability of the popular commercial UAS idea.

 As evident in the long road still being paved by electrical cars’ manufacturers, and contrary to global processes or popular beliefs, the future of the common commercial UAS is still unknown.  Setting aside trendy uses of model RC aircraft or small delivery systems, I believe that a realistic framework and effective strategy can be put in place to bring several sections of the commercial UAS concept to gradual fruition.  Several vectors are crucial to the process, such as quality and reliability versus cost, harmonization, ecosystem and layers of complexity.

Quality and reliability are the cornerstones of any technology and they are fundamental to safety in commercial aerial systems and UAS. The defense segment benefited from the evolution of parallel systems, forced to invest heavily in quality assurance, redundancy, safety and thus – reliability. Furthermore, the demand for quality output data drove the development of high-end payloads.

 Commercial UAS are meant to provide specific output depending on the mission at hand, therefore quality refers also to the value of the output itself, may it refer to reliable delivery of goods, data, image or video, or any other desired reading.  The system becomes expendable if the output it provides fails to create a clear and added benefit to the user, while maintaining acceptable quality. In contrast, novice manufacturers or systems intended for commercial use are primarily designed with cost-effectiveness as their main driver, debunking quality, reliability and safety, despite the clear fact that for UAS to take a larger commercial role, they must be designed and operated with aim of providing clear added benefits while assuring the ultimate safety.

 Originally, unmanned systems were designed to operate independently, either very locally, i.e. in low altitude, short-range missions, or replacing existing manned systems, rather than flying in an overcrowded environment, thus coexisting seperatly and harmoniously.  The accentuated reality of recent years means such synchronization must take into account the entire ecosystem and potential modifications to it over time, including  other platforms, such as manned aircraft of all types, aerostats and blimps, as well as the issues of an urban environment or the increase in passenger traffic, changes in safety technology, changes in air traffic control regulations, bases of operation requirements, logistics, and what may be perhaps the largest challenge –  the wireless spectrum crisis that may soon limit the amount of UAS flying and that has been almost completely overlooked.

 The UAS is complex in many ways, from system component complexity to communication, and even its integration into existing airspace. We know that they are inherently complex, but we tend to simplify them into basic frameworks, conceptually comparing them to RC models. Unmanned aerial vehicles are popularly viewed as very simple and on a straightforward road to success, much like electrical cars before them. Any person can buy a fuselage, install an engine and a radio and have it become airborne.  However, UAS cannot be perceived as a hobby, as they require basic components at a higher level, beginning with a platform, a payload (which is durable, reliable, safe and mission-appropriate), a ground-control station (which is simple, reliable and safe) and any ground support equipment needed for its daily, safe operation. Complexity awaits on every layer of any system and the development process thereof, and it must be acknowledged while accepting that some issues will reveal themselves only as the process progresses.

 Clearly UAS have considerable sex appeal and can be used now if we do desire, but it is not enough for them to take a responsible and valid commercial role. The expectations for the commercial UAS market require all players, and primarily the manufacturers, to pursue a conscious development process, which fully evaluates whether they have any added value to bring into an already turbulent red sky, assessing the long term financial viability, accounting for unforeseen complexities, considering ecosystem issues and designing their systems with quality and reliability in their sights. 

 The theory of rational expectations assumes that investors’ expectations change almost instantaneously according to events.  History has taught us that in the real world, expectations can change in both a slow and fast pace according to ever-changing circumstances9. The risks are high and ultimately UAS may have a larger role to play in our future, but it remains to be seen to what extent. Separated from defense segment systems, commercial UAS’  integration pace will be determined primarily by actual needs and only then by the industry, the users and the community’s ability, as well as those of the civil authorities, to overcome psychological, technical, regulatory, financial and operational challenges to everyone’s satisfaction.

 

References:

 [1] Bill Conerly, “What is A bubble?,” Forbes 24 July, 2013.

 [2] Steven Mufson, “Tesla’s market value soars, but some see a bubble”; The Washington Post, May 16, 2013

 [3] US Department of transportation, Federal Aviation administration, “Integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace roadmap”, FAA, November, 2013.

 [4] The American institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, “UAS roundup 2013”, Aerospace America, July-August, 2013.

 [5] Darryl Jenkins, Bijan Vasigh, “The economic impact of unmanned aircraft systems integration in the united states”; AUVSI publication, March 2013.

 [6] Sy Harding, “Investor expectations also need tapering as we enter 2014”; Forbes, 27 December, 2013

 [7] US Department of transportation, Federal Aviation administration, “FAA Aerospace forecast, fiscal years 2011-2031”, FAA, 2011.

SCHIEBEL DEMONSTRATES THE CAMCOPTER® S-100 MARITIME CAPABILITIES FOR THE BRAZILIAN NAVY

Vienna, 5 June 2014 – Schiebel´s dedication to the maritime domain and its ability to respond to the evolving unmanned systems requirements lead to a series of trials for the Brazilian Navy from 2nd to 5th June near San Pedro, Brazil, from the Brazilian Amazonas Class Ship APA.

Schiebel’s unmanned helicopter CAMCOPTER® S-100 convinced representatives of the Brazilian Navy and Ministry of Defense of its outstanding capabilities as a VTOL UAS (Unmanned Air System), after series of sorties were flown from the sea near San Pedro,
Brazil (160 km east from Rio de Janeiro). In support, a number of presentations were given over four days to the attending officers, covering the unique maritime capabilities of the S-100.

S-100 CAMCOPTER fitted with SELES ES PicoSAR, L3 Wescam MX-10 and AIS Receiver
S-100 CAMCOPTER fitted with SELES ES PicoSAR, L3 Wescam MX-10 and AIS Receiver

The demonstration flights were conducted using scenarios agreed with the Brazilian Navy and designed to evaluate the capabilities of its payloads: L3 Wescam MX-10, Selex ES SAGE ESM, Selex PicoSAR Radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System), highlighting the extensive portfolio of available payloads for the CAMCOPTER® S-100.  All trials were carried out during both day and night at ranges out to 44 nautical miles with target detection out to 90 nautical miles.

The programme successfully demonstrated the CAMCOPTER® S-100 capability to meet the operational needs of Maritime Commanders in such complex, dynamic environments.

Source: Schiebel Press Release

About Schiebel:
Founded in 1951, the Vienna-based Schiebel Group of companies focuses on the development, testing and production of state-of-the-art mine detection equipment and the revolutionary CAMCOPTER® S-100 Unmanned Air System (UAS). Schiebel has built an international reputation for producing quality defense and humanitarian products, which are backed by exceptional after-sales service and support.  Since 2010 Schiebel offers the new division composite and is able to supply high-tech customers with this high-quality carbon fiber technology. All products are quality-controlled to meet ISO 9001 standards. With headquarters in Vienna (Austria), Schiebel now maintains production facilities in Wiener Neustadt (Austria), and Abu Dhabi (UAE), as well as offices in Washington DC (USA), and Phnom Penh (Cambodia).

S-100 CAMCOPTER with SAGE ESM fitted
S-100 CAMCOPTER with SAGE ESM fitted

About the CAMCOPTER® S-100:
Schiebel’s CAMCOPTER® S-100 Unmanned Air System (UAS) is a proven capability for military and civilian applications. The Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) UAS needs no prepared area or supporting launch or recovery equipment. It operates in day and night, under adverse weather conditions, with a beyond line-of-sight capability out to 200 km, both on land and at sea. The S-100 navigates via preprogrammed GPS waypoints or is operated with a pilot control unit. Missions are planned and controlled via
a simple point-and-click graphical user interface. High definition payload imagery is transmitted to the control station in real time. Using “fly-by-wire” technology controlled by a triple-redundant flight computer, the UAV can complete its mission automatically. Its carbon fiber and titanium fuselage provides capacity for a wide range of payload/endurance combinations up to a service ceiling of 18,000 ft.  In its standard configuration, the CAMCOPTER® S-100 carries a 75 lbs/34 kg payload up to 10 hours and is powered with AVGas or heavy fuel.

Seeking Partners in Unmanned Systems

 

Unmanned Systems Australia is seeking like minded partners to become involved in the use of UAVs (or drones if you like !) for conservation and/or environmental purposes. We are seeking UAV hardware and software companies to provide their time and products on a voluntary basis to tackle some of the most challenging environmental/conservation problems in Australia and around the world.

We want to hear from companies who want to be involved. We also want to hear from conservation organisation that are seeking support. Lets help to turn the images of UAVs into a community benefiting industry.

See also: Drone for Good

If you are able to assist in this endeavour please contact Unmanned Systems Australia

 

 

 

 

CAMCOPTER® S-100 – SUPPORTING THE WINTER AND PARA OLYMPICS IN SOCHI

Vienna, 28 February 2014 – During the entire Olympics Games – the XXII Winter Games and Paralympics – the CAMCOPTER® S-100 UAS Unmanned Aircraft System (in cooperation with JSC Gorizont Russia: Gorizont Air S-100) is operating in Sochi.

The CAMCOPTER® S-100 UAS is surveilling the area within approx. 50 kilometres from the seaside around the Olympic village. Here again, the S-100 confirms its reputation as ultramodern multi-purpose unmanned helicopter system which neither requires a take-off strip nor supporting launch or recovery equipment, and can be actively used both land and ship based.

S-100 CAMCOPTER ready for a security misison at Sochi
S-100 CAMCOPTER ready for a security misison at Sochi

 

The system is designed for mobile and flexible implementation, which guarantees fast deployment. The technical characteristics of the system allow for the completion of necessary tasks within restricted space, such as in mountainous areas, and from maritime platforms or other structures. During the entire XXII Olympic Winter Games all the information from the S-100 unmanned helicopter was received in real-time, a feature that is made possible by means of interfacing of the UAV system with the unified safety control system of the Olympic Winter Games, and from March 7th the Paralympic Games.

S-100 Camcopter flying security missions at Sochi Olympics
S-100 Camcopter flying security missions at Sochi Olympics

About the CAMCOPTER® S-100:
Schiebel’s CAMCOPTER® S-100 Unmanned Air System (UAS) is a proven capability for military and civilian applications. The Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) UAS needs no prepared area or supporting
launch or recovery equipment. It operates in day and night, under adverse weather conditions, with a beyond line-of-sight capability out to 200 km, both on land and at sea. The S-100 navigates via preprogrammed
GPS waypoints or is operated with a pilot control unit. Missions are planned and controlled via a simple point-and-click graphical user interface. High definition payload imagery is transmitted to the control station in real time. Using “fly-by-wire” technology controlled by a triple-redundant flight computer, the UAV can complete its mission automatically. Its carbon fiber and titanium fuselage provides capacity for a wide range of payload/endurance combinations up to a service ceiling of 18,000 ft. In its standard configuration, the CAMCOPTER® S-100 carries a 75 lbs/34 kg payload up to 10 hours and is powered with AVGas or heavy fuel.

Source: Scheibel Press Release

SCHIEBEL CAMCOPTER® S-100 – WINS CONTRACT WITH THE ITALIAN NAVY

Vienna, 11 February 2014 – The Italian Navy has selected the CAMCOPTER® S-100 UAS (Unmanned Air System) to provide support for its fleet, making it the first European Navy that has S-100 in operational use.

The CAMCOPTER® S-100 has already proven efficient to the Italian Navy as it was the first UAS ever to fly from an Italian ship, the ITS Bersagliere a Soldati Class frigate in April 2012. Being the UAS of choice, the unmanned helicopter will provide its increased operational ability to Italian Navy Commanders once again. The signed contract includes a system, training, integration and spare parts.

With minimal physical, logistics and manpower footprint, the S-100 is especially effective at sea. The system will provide unique degrees of flexibility, versatility and persistence on board of Italian Navy ships employed in anti-piracy missions.

CAMCOPTER_S-100

Hans Georg Schiebel, Chairman of the Schiebel Group of companies said, “The CAMCOPTER® S-100 continues to be a proven and highly sought after asset in maritime operations. Its ability to extend a ship commander’s visible and electronic horizon to
beyond what is conventionally possible is a powerful instrument that helps to counter possible threats, secure routes and control recourses at less operational cost. This quality has already garnered the interest of several global navies where the S-100’s
robust nature has proven effective, particularly in the unforgiving maritime environment.”

Mounted with a Wescam MX-10 and a Shine Micro AIS (Automatic Identification System), the CAMCOPTER® S-100 has the capability to collect time-critical data during uninterrupted periods of up to 6 hours, and can hover, which provides decision makers with a flexible unique means of collecting and disseminating information. Additionally, the S-100 will be mounted with a Schiebel-designed harpoon system, which supports takeoff and landing in conditions up to Sea State 5.

About the CAMCOPTER® S-100:
Schiebel’s CAMCOPTER® S-100 Unmanned Air System (UAS) is a proven capability for military and civilian applications. The Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) UAS needs no prepared area or supporting launch or recovery equipment. It operates in day and night, under adverse weather conditions, with a beyond line-of-sight capability out to 200 km, both on land and at sea. The S-100 navigates via preprogrammed GPS waypoints or is operated with a pilot control unit. Missions are planned and controlled via
a simple point-and-click graphical user interface. High definition payload imagery is transmitted to the control station in real time. Using “fly-by-wire” technology controlled by a triple-redundant flight computer, the UAV can complete its mission automatically. Its carbon fiber and titanium fuselage provides capacity for a wide range of payload/endurance combinations up to a service ceiling of 18,000 ft. In its standard configuration, the CAMCOPTER® S-100 carries a 75 lbs/34 kg payload up to 10 hours and is powered with AVGas or heavy fuel.

For further information, please contact:
Andrea Blama
Tel: +43 (1) 546 26-44
Email: pr@schiebel.net
www.schiebel.net

or enquiries@unmannedsystemsaustralia.com.au

 

Civil Drones Improve Humanitarian Response in the Philippines

As Direct Relief’s relief and recovery efforts in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan continue, civil drones are helping our organization and others respond more efficiently to the most pressing needs of people affected by the super storm.

About a week after Typhoon Haiyan struck, an assessment group from Direct Relief’s partner, veterans’ response organization Team Rubicon, sought to determine the operational status of the Carigara District Hospital, located northwest of the city of Tacloban.

Travel along damaged roads was difficult and slow. Rumors of an uncertain security situation were circulating. Comprehensive structural assessment seemed highly challenging at best.

Yet, the assessment group was able to provide local officials and aid groups with a rapid and highly accurate visual analysis of damage to the Carigara District Hospital – at minimal risk to the people conducting the assessment – by deploying the latest in close proximity aerial imaging technology with a Huginn X1 civil drone.

The assessment provided enough information to allow Team Rubicon to proceed with setting up a medical relief station there to help survivors access emergency care. Direct Relief has been supporting Team Rubicon’s medical responders on the ground with critical medicines and supplies.

A civil drone is the peacetime and humanitarian cousin of the aerial robotic units which have been discussed extensively in the press throughout several recent US-led military conflicts. The Huginn X1, manufactured by Anthea Technologies and distributed by DanOfficeIT, is a ruggedized quadcopter drone adapted primarily for search and rescue support. It comes equipped with high definition digital cameras as well as thermal imaging to detect the heat signatures of people on the ground who may be in need of help.

DanOfficeIT contributed the drone technology and manpower free of charge to nongovernmental organizations working on the front lines of the typhoon response to help organizations learn where to focus their work.

Civil drones have had an immediate and substantial impact on the ability of groups like Direct Relief and Team Rubicon to gain high-speed visual awareness of complex situations that threaten to put humanitarian responders at significant personal risk.

Likewise, civil drones allow for detailed aerial mapping in support of operational planning. The Huginn X1 was not only valuable in terms of structural assessment but also as a way to scout locations in advance to determine the best possible routes of approach and assistance.

Read more: Reliefweb

LIDAR Applications

This webinar include a useful guide to many of the LIDAR application that can be undertaken.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9–fjPBut-U[/youtube]

 

Here is another recent application with a small UAV and LIDAR

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA6RV0K2taQ[/youtube]

 

Using Drones in the Fight Against Apple Scab

By Rachel Rohr on October 28, 2013

Photography by Rachel Rohr

For apple growers in the eastern United States, the biggest problem – the most relentless, pervasive, unavoidable issue, which can ruin a whole crop if not managed aggressively – is apple scab. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool to combat the apple scourge: A drone.

 The fungal infection causes dark scabby lesions on the leaves and skin of the apple, which leaves the flavour unaffected, but does effectively make it unsaleable.

“It’s a huge issue,” says Peter Wagner, owner of Applecrest Farm Orchards, a 110-acre orchard in south east New Hampshire. “Thirty years ago, you were allowed to have a scab on your apple that was probably 10 millimetres, or half the size of a dime, without a problem at all. Now you can’t put any of that in the apple pack, so it renders the apple unmarketable.”

Apple scab is less of an issue in drier regions, such as Washington state. But in places like New York, New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts, apple scab is the number one pathogen and apple farmers’ primary concern.

In recent decades, researchers have made strides in understanding the fungus’s life cycle, so farmers are spraying less than they used to, with better results. Some farmers even use predictive models, such as the Dutch program RIMpro to forecast the best spraying times. But apple scab is still a persistent battle, and it’s especially difficult – if not nearly impossible – for organic farmers to grow a scab-free crop.

So researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool for fighting apple scab: Drones.

“When you think about apple production now, a grower needs to walk through his orchard every day to make sure he sees any new insect pests or any new disease pests that come into an orchard,” says plant pathologist Kirk D. Broders, an assistant professor at UNH. “But when you’re talking about a 10, 20, 100-acre orchard, your ability to do that on a daily basis is almost impossible.”

But it is possible with a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, carrying an infra-red camera that takes multi spectral images of the orchard. A computer program crunches the wavelengths in each pixel, making it possible to hone in on colours and temperatures – and locate apple scab.

“If you had a UAV that had the capacity to go up once a day, take a digital image or multiple digital images – both in infra-red and then in normal spectrum — you could actually monitor your orchard”

Broders says the ultimate goal is to develop an orchard-monitoring UAV system that could be sold to growers.

It’s not the first time that multi spectral imaging has been used in agriculture. Researchers have analysed plants using lab equipment, and large farming operations can hire air planes to fly over and take multi spectral images of large swaths of corn or soy beans to monitor crop health.

“What we are trying to do is develop a system that allows us to do things in-between – so not at the single-plant lab scale, and not at the air plane several-fields-at-a-time scale,” Broders said. “We’re trying to develop a low-cost system that could actually be used by either individual researchers or individual growers.”

At Applecrest Farm, Peter Wagner calls the prospect of an affordable infra-red imaging system that could be used daily, “pretty awesome.”

“I think that’s a great endeavour – no question – particularly the fact that most scab that we don’t eradicate usually occurs at the top of the tree,” Wagner said. “In the old days with big trees, you could climb up and look around – which is time consuming – but now with the new plantings, the trees are younger, smaller, and it’s harder to climb because the limbs aren’t as strong.”

Wallhead and Broders envision apple growers using the drone-camera system in conjunction with the predictive models for apple scab – the real-time data that tell farmers when to spray.

“The UAV is really only one tool we’re using to manage apple scab, because apple scab is so difficult to control,” Broders said. “We’re using our predictive model to improve application of organically-certified compounds. We’re using the UAV for early detection. And then whenever possible, we’re utilizing resistant varieties to also help us reduce fungicide inputs and provide better control.”

One scab-resistant variety growing in the experimental research orchard at UNH’s Woodman Farm is Crimson Crisp, the product of collaboration among Purdue University, Rutgers and University of Illinois.

While apple scab is the main concern in the eastern U.S., the multi spectral data can also be used to detect other problems – from insect damage to nitrogen deficiency. Pinpointed applications of fertilizer, pesticides and fungicides mean growers are using less, which is better for the environment and consumers – as well as the farmer’s bottom line.

The drones could even be used to monitor forest health, scanning for disease or invasive beetles.

“I think it has applications even beyond agriculture,” Broders said. “And I think there are a number of people that are just now beginning to understand what these unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of doing.”

Courtesy: Modern farmer.

AEROVEL’S LONG-RANGE FLEXROTOR OPERATES AUTONOMOUSLY FROM UNMANNED BOAT

The newest aircraft carrier does not have acres of flight deck.  In fact it has no deck at all.  Its complement does not number in the thousands.  Instead it sails without a soul on board.  Yet the aircraft that it operates can fly much longer and farther than anything based on a fleet leviathan.

The aircraft is Aerovel’s 20-kg Flexrotor, which combines VTOL and small footprint with Hawaii-to-West Coast range.  The carrier is a 4-metre skiff equipped to launch, retrieve, and service Flexrotor automatically.  In what are believed to be the first-ever flight cycles of an unmanned aircraft based on an unmanned boat, Flexrotor launched from the remotely-controlled skiff while underway, climbed out as a helicopter, transitioned to wing-borne flight, imaged the skiff while flying at low and high speeds, transitioned back to thrust-borne flight, and retrieved autonomously onboard.  The aircraft then shut down, was automatically refueled and restarted, and repeated the first flight, finally being secured onboard in a docking station. Aircraft and skiff then came ashore, and were driven 100 miles home into the setting sun.

Pandora

The operation represented a marked advance in the state of the art in miniature robotic aircraft, and in the ability to deploy kilogram-scale payloads with unprecedented flexibility.  Flexrotor’s autonomy throughout the operations cycle, combined with small footprint, long range, low noise, and two-day endurance offer economy sufficient to enable long-promised civil applications at sea and ashore, including geological survey, weather reconnaissance, fishery surveillance, environmental monitoring, and offshore patrol.

Aerovel is a privately-held company based in the northwest United States.  It was founded in 2006 to develop autonomous aircraft, primarily for civil applications.

More information on Aerovel and Flexrotor can be found at www.aerovelco.com.  Video of the demonstration is posted on Aerovel’s Youtube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/AerovelCo, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hE8-nwdwixs.