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Healthier crops, faster disaster relief, and more, with UAS technology

Unmanned autonomous systems (UAS) are testing the limits of people’s comfort with independent capabilities of technology — yet these technologies are also enabling more productive crops, faster and safer disaster relief, and other benefits across fields of healthcare, defense, transportation, agriculture, and security. While some among the nonscientific population might still be making up their minds about self-driving cars and other unmanned autonomous systems, industry, government, and academia are moving forward to look for more ways to improve and even save lives.

In the field

Among recent projects, Hands Free Hectare at Harper Adams University was developed to enable every part of the farming process to be done by robots, not humans: “Automated machines growing the first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground.”

Simon Blackmore, professor and head of engineering at Harper Adams, described in an interview with SPIE during SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2016 his group's work in robotic technologies to automate systems throughout the agriculture process. "We are using instruments and sensor systems from the conference here today to measure the complex nature of the growing environment," he noted. His focus is on machines that might replace the tractor or even herbicides. For example, with laser weeding, there is no chemical residue. Weeds are recognized and their growing points located using machine vision, and a laser kills the weed by heating the growing point.

Fig. 3 Lancaster UAV from PrecisionHawk.
doi: 10.1117/12.2262049 Credit: the authors.
Another method of precision agriculture using UAS was explored by researchers at Cal Poly, who reported on their work at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2017 in Anaheim, California (see the image at right for an example). They equipped unmanned aerial vehicles with multispectral/ hyperspectral cameras and RGB cameras, and used the processed images to detect unhealthy or low-yielding plants. The aerial data was used with unmanned ground vehicles in caring for crops, estimating harvest, and other tasks.  (See the SPIE Digital Library proceedings paper to learn more.)

Scientific conferences are an important means of staying up-to-date on the latest developments. Leading academic and government researchers and developers from top companies in defense, security, imaging, and infrared applications continue to meet yearly at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing, to present their latest work and collaborate with others in the field. The next iteration of the conference will be in Orlando, Florida, 15–19 April 2018. A track on UAS and other technologies with applications in agriculture is among more than 50 now accepting abstract submissions

Diving deep

Another area of promise researchers see for autonomous systems is underwater, and unmanned submarines have been receiving attention lately. A report in the Washington Post notes interest in the unmanned systems market from companies, military researchers, and municipal law enforcement, for applications in security, exploration, and other areas.

SPIE Defense + Security provides a valuable forum this content as well. Conferences on Unmanned Systems Technology and Autonomous Systems: Sensors, Vehicles, Security, and the Internet of Everything are among those planned for the Orlando meeting.

Flying high

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston this summer, NASA deployed drones in crucial roles in the days following the storm. The UAS were put into use immediately in getting help to victims, and took on tasks that people  could not, such as mapping safe routes in areas unfit for rescuers to enter.

An SPIE Newsroom article details how UAS and other photonics technologies helped first responders locate survivors and assess property damage after a major series of earthquakes in Nepal in 2015 — and how UAS-gathered imagery is used to help pinpoint areas at risk for future earthquakes.

Researchers will have the opportunity to present work in this area in conferences at SPIE Defense + Security including one on Situation Awareness in Degraded Environments.

The field is in an exciting period of exploration and expansion, as scientists and engineers explore the capabilities of these technologies and work with developers on life-enhancing applications.


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