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Aussies developing small flying robots for agriculture

By Damir Beciri
10 November 2011

peter-corke-robotWe already published a fair share of articles regarding flying robots, but the robotics team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) recently got a grant to develop a couple of interesting robots. They are developing a low-cost flying robot that could be used to inspect the hard to reach places, as well as a fleet of eco-friendly robotic flyers that could be used in agriculture.

“You’ll be able to put your suitcase on the ground, open it up and send the flying robot off to do its job”, said Professor Peter Corke, from the QUT Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering. “These robots could fly around and deliver objects to people inside buildings and inspect things that are too high or difficult for a human to reach easily.”

These propeller-powered robots are small enough to be packed into a suitcase. They are equipped with multiple cameras which enable them to ‘see’ the world around them while they carry out tasks such as deliveries or inspections.

Within the next year, the team hopes they’ll be able to attach arms to the flying robots in order to provide them with manipulation over objects or tools they could use. This is a bit far fetches since the researchers are still working out the technical challenges regarding its collision detection and stability – both pretty important when it comes to practical use outdoors where wind tends to destabilize its flight.

Professor Corke and his team, including fellow researcher Dr Ben Upcroft, are also researching ways to create lightweight robots that could be used in agriculture. Equipped with cameras and advanced navigation capability, these light agricultural robots would cooperate in teams, or robotic swarms, to cover large areas of farmland. The QUT researchers expect that their robots will causing less soil damage and applying herbicide more intelligently.

“Farmers are currently using machines which indiscriminately spray herbicide across the crop, which is expensive and not very environmentally friendly”, said Dr Upcroft. “The (robot’s) camera can look at the area surrounding the robot and the image recognition software will pick out features of the weed which make it different to the rest of the crop.”

The three-year project, which was recently awarded nearly $400,000 in funding from the Australian Research Council, is being conducted with the University of Sydney and Queensland farmer Andrew Bate, who runs Advanced Agricultural Systems.

“We’ve already reached peak farmland, so we have to figure out smarter farming systems which increase yield in a more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way”, said Bate, who has a grain and cattle farm at Bendee, south-west of Emerald in central Queensland. “Every other industry is already enjoying the benefits of robotics. This is the revolution farming has to have.”

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