Built Like An Albatross, Drone Eyes Crop Evaluation and Search-and-Rescue [CES 2016]

Built Like An Albatross, Drone Eyes Crop Evaluation and Search-and-Rescue [CES 2016]

Design prototypes for a drone made to help in humanitarian aid and agriculture #CES2016

Macala Wright
  • 8 january 2016

From the Ehang human-carrying drone to Yuneec’s photo drone to the Lily Camera, drones took center stage at CES in 2016, as they did in 2015 and the year before. One company that impressed PSFK was Seattle-based Autel Robotics, creators of a first-of-its-kind drone designed specifically for humanitarian and agricultural purposes.

Before you read on, flash back to the opening of Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey takes down a drone with his two children in order to leverage the technology inside. The drone—sleek, black and similar to a missile—was etched into your mind. You wanted to know what it did. Well, that drone, used for land survey, could very well have been Autel Robotic’s Kestrel prototype, a fixed-wing UAV developed through a partnership project with Quantum Systems and Technische Universität München.

The Kestrel is the most efficient electric VTOL UAS in the world, and it is primarily intended for agricultural and humanitarian applications. The Kestrel has an approximate 1.2 to two-hour flight time, an 11.5-feet wingspan, and can travel up to 62 miles. What’s also cool is that it can take off and land vertically.

AgDrones will make up 80 percent of commercial use by 2050

In agriculture, agribusiness was an extremely manual process until the invention of machinery that could be used for soil testing and the installation of sensors to monitor crops. But there were still holes in that process. With the invention of drones, agribusinesses are looking at a scaleable way monitor nitrogen cycles or plant photosynthesis at scale. The Kestrel drone is designed to aid in precision crop evaluation, as well as fertilization. The dedicated flight control system combines automatically-generated flight routes with infrared multispectral sensors to enable detailed crop condition monitoring across large parcels of land.

Currently, there are 181,000 drones registered with the FAA. Federal rules around unnamed aerial vehicles were loosened in 2014; granting special permits were issued to a handful of agriculture operators. The impact of drone efficiency on the U.S. farm sector could be huge, as outlined by the Boston Globe, we could see billions of dollars in economic returns and many more jobs salvaged and/or created.

An American Farm Bureau Federation study estimates farmers’ return-on-investment alone could be $12 per acre for corn and $2 to $3 per acre for soybeans and wheat. AgDrones may make up to 80 percent of commercial drones in the sky by 2050.

Drones have multifaceted use in humanitarian efforts

For humanitarian use, drones are entering a rapid phase of adoption, there’s already a UN-established UAV network. For a fraction of the cost of satellite, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) generate real-time information, provide situation monitoring, aid in search and rescue programs, deliver detailed mapping and more. It’s important to note that the drones used in humanitarian efforts are civilian-focused, not of military use, though their design looks much like something from a combat movie or video games; it’s the civilian aspect and design that make the Kestel stand out as it looks nothing like current drones used for this sector.

The Kestrel’s interior features storage where aid and smaller supplies can be added. The unit can be piloted into disaster areas to provide supplies; it can also deliver emergency supplies to hard-to-access terrain where traditional landing and takeoff may be impossible. What’s more, the fuselage separates into a tail and nose section, allowing the user to take it apart and easily transport it. The drone’s battery pack is easily accessible and changeable to make use of it fluid.

Drones need further development like any future technologies

While all the excitement about and talk about drones is amazing, it’s important to note that like with wearables, the Internet of Things, and augmented reality, drone development is still in early stages. Design sophistication is improving rapidly, but the technical specifications of success have a long way to go. That being said, are you going to buy a drone? If so, I’d recommend a look at Autel’s new X-series, just please don’t take aerial selfies with it.

Autel Robotics

Get the most out of this year’s CES with PSFK CES 2016 Guide, featuring the best booths and events, as well as daily schedules and recommendations. Check out our coverage on PSFK and head over to our SlideShare page to download the full guide.


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