Christina Cardoza

Apr 28, 2016 10:43:57 AM

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Drones are embarking on a new mission next month to help biofuels grow. Biofuels have the potential to be a great energy source for transportation, but one biofuel in particular needs a helping hand to get off the ground.

Enter the drones. As part of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program, drones will be used to help accelerate the breeding process of sorghum for the purpose of transportation biofuels.

According to ARPA-E, the TERRA program was developed as an effort to promote low- and zero-carbon transportation fuels, but producing these large amounts of crops is a time-intensive and manual process. The organization hopes the use of drones, combined with remote sensing platforms, complex data analytic tools and plant-breeding technologies, can quickly and accurately evaluate plant characteristics in order to reduce the time and labor it takes to phenotype sorghum.

The drones will also help breeders develop a new variety of sorghum. The unmanned vehicle will work with two ground vehicles to analyze a sorghum field over three years, during which the drones will look at hundreds of varieties of sorghum and assess the health of those crops.

“With all these different sensors we are carrying on board, we can get really reliable data from above and describe whether one variety is really thriving and might meet the breeding goals for bioenergy purposes or whether another variety right next to it is doing terrible,” said Paul Bartlett, principal systems engineer at Near Earth Autonomy, a robotics and aerospace company working with the ARPA-E TERRA program. “We want to find ways that we can make these assessments really early in the growing season, and not necessarily have to wait six to eight months later when you go to harvest.”

Near Earth Autonomy will use a 30-pound, single-rotor autonomous drone equipped with four sensors developed by a partner company. The sensors include a high-resolution color camera, a thermal imager, a hyperspectral near-infrared camera, and a LiDAR instrument. This drone will be used during the first phase or year of the research project. A second drone will be developed for the second growing season based on the company’s results from the first growing season, and then the company will work on refining how it collects data and analyzes its data for the third growing season.

“[For] the first [system], we are trying to basically hit the button really hard with a lot of really powerful sensors and a lot of really capable aircrafts,” said Bartlett. “In the second version we are going to look at ways we can see ways to pare things down and develop something that might be a little commercially [digestible] to farm-management-type situations. We are really comfortable working with autonomous aircrafts, and we are choosing the right sensors for different situations and making sure the data is collected really well and calibrated really well.”

The unmanned ground vehicles will work to obtain up-close observations of the plants. According to Bartlett, a flying drone is essential for this operation because the ground systems carry heavy sensors that require more power, move slowly, and at some point the crops will reach 20 feet tall, making it difficult to obtain observations from the ground. “With drones, we are getting to do more like snapshots from above where you can get the entire field over the course of maybe five minutes,” he said.

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