Autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles for agricultural applications

B.A. Vroegindeweij, S.W. van Wijk, E. van Henten

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) receive a growing interest in media and literature, not only for military and surveillance applications, but also as toys and for agricultural purposes. In this research, we reviewed the current state of art of UAV technology. Moreover, we define potential agricultural application cases where autonomous UAVs can be used, which in the end is translated to a research agenda to enable this innovation. Main-stream development started in US army, based on the plane principle, while later adding helicopter-based motion to increase versatility. First applications consisted of observation tasks and bombing targets, and extended to spraying of fluids with plane-like UAVs. These are still the main purposes (both civil and in military) of UAVs. Usually remote piloting is used. Then, stability control is automated, but flight control and navigation are still largely performed manually by the remote pilot. Also processing of collected information (like field maps) is manually done, usually in an off-line stage. Literature discusses a wide range of applications for surveillance, including using multiple drones working together. However, the number of (autonomous) applications tested or working in practice still remains limited. In agriculture, going airborne offers more flexibility by removing a number of constraints (like on locomotion and accessibility of the field) on current production systems, thus creating a range of new opportunities. This includes monitoring of fields, plants or animals to check their (health) status with a much higher frequency and level of detail than current approaches (man-, machine-, or satellite-based) allow. Also, proximal sensing reduces interference from objects between sensor and target. In arable farming for example, it allows daily monitoring of crop status at plant level, so more accurate information is available for starting treatments. In livestock farming this offers similar advantages when monitoring and managing herds in remote areas. Compared to wireless sensor networks, UAVs are more versatile, can handle multiple types of observations and have the possibility of performing actions. To make use of UAVs successful in such applications, several requirements have to be met: 1) advanced control is developed, so that full autonomy is reached on field or application level (as labour is expensive), including start/stop decisions, localisation, navigation through areas, handling obstacles and other flight conditions; 2) this is done reliable and safe, for both UAV and environment; 3) automated data processing methods are available, providing only relevant information to supervisors or other system components; 4) legislation allows autonomous UAV operation and ethical issues relating to the indicated applications (like on privacy) are resolved. If this point is reached, possible extensions or future steps are 5) developing new actuation methods and 6) enabling redesign of agricultural production methods. It is concluded that there is extensive interest in UAVs and their possible applications, also for agriculture, but that only few remote-controlled surveying operations are tested in practice. New and more advanced applications for autonomous UAVs are proposed, but require significant work from both research and technology providers, mainly in the field of autonomous decision making.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventAgEng 2014 - Zurich, Switzerland
Duration: 6 Jul 201410 Jul 2014


ConferenceAgEng 2014


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