Unused TV spectrum and drones could help make smart farms a reality
ON THE Dancing Crow farm in Washington, sunflowers and squashes soak up the rich autumn sunshine beside a row of solar panels. This bucolic smallholding provides organic vegetables to the farmers’ markets of Seattle. But it is also home to an experiment by Microsoft, a big computing firm, that it hopes will transform agriculture further afield. For the past year, the firm’s engineers have been developing a suite of technologies there to slash the cost of “precision agriculture”, which aims to use sensors and clever algorithms to deliver water, fertilisers and pesticides only to crops that actually need them.
Precision agriculture is one of the technologies that could help to feed a world whose population is forecast to hit almost 10 billion by 2050. If farmers can irrigate only when necessary, and avoid excessive pesticide use, they should be able to save money and boost their output.
But existing systems work out at $1,000 a sensor. That is too pricey for most rich-world farmers, let alone those in poor countries where productivity gains are most needed. The sensors themselves, which probe things like moisture, temperature and acidity in the soil, and which are scattered all over the farm, are fairly cheap, and can be powered with inexpensive solar panels. The cost comes in getting data from sensor to farmer. Few rural farms enjoy perfect mobile-phone coverage, and Wi-Fi networks do not have the range to cover entire fields. So most precision-agriculture systems rely on sensors that connect to custom cellular base stations, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or to satellites, which require pricey antennas and data plans.
In contrast, the sensors at Dancing Crow employ unoccupied slices of the UHF and VHF radio frequencies used for TV broadcasts, slotting data between channels. Many countries are experimenting with this so-called “white space”; to unlock extra bandwidth for mobile phones. In cities, tiny slices of the white-space spectrum sell for millions of dollars. But in the sparsely populated countryside, says Ranveer Chandra, a Microsoft researcher, there is unlicensed space galore.
Learn more: Precision agriculture
We’ve all been there, impatiently twiddling our thumbs while trying to locate a WiFi signal. But what if, instead, the WiFi could locate us?
According to researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory(CSAIL), it could mean safer drones, smarter homes, and password-free WiFi.
In a new paper, a research team led by Professor Dina Katabi present a system called Chronos that enables a single WiFi access point to locate users to within tens of centimeters, without any external sensors.
The group demonstrated Chronos in an apartment and a cafe, while also showing off a drone that maintains a safe distance from its user with a margin of error of about four centimeters.
“From developing drones that are safer for people to be around, to tracking where family members are in your house, Chronos could open up new avenues for using WiFi in robotics, home automation and more,” says PhD student Deepak Vasisht, who is first author on the paper alongside Katabi and former PhD student Swarun Kumar, who is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Designing a system that enables one WiFi node to locate another is an important step for wireless technology.”
Earth and environmental scientists have often had to rely on piloted aircraft and satellites to collect remote sensing data, platforms that have traditionally been controlled by large research organizations or regulatory agencies.
Thanks to the increased affordability and dramatic technological advances of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), however, earth and environmental scientists can now conduct their own long-term high-resolution experiments at a fraction of the cost of using aircraft or satellites.
“UAVs are poised to revolutionize remote sensing in the earth and environmental sciences,” says Enrique Vivoni, hydrologist and professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “They let individual scientists obtain low-cost repeat imagery at high resolution and tailored to a research team’s specific interest area.”
You’ve heard of the Internet of Things – the generic name given to all the various networked sensors, machines, devices and even buildings in the world – but most of those “things” stay in one place for the most part. The world is primed for an explosion of autonomous ambulatory devices, which led a team of engineers from the University of Waterloo in Canada to draft a conceptual framework for an “Internet of Drones.”
The authors of a paper on the concept (linked at the bottom of the page) lay out what is essentially a structure for how drone traffic could be managed. It combines elements of the current air traffic control system, cellular networks and the internet.
Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney have developed a world-first radio-tracking drone to locate radio-tagged wildlife.
Lead researcher Dr Debbie Saunders from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said the drones have successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram. The system has been tested by tracking bettongs at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra.
“The small aerial robot will allow researchers to more rapidly and accurately find tagged wildlife, gain insights into movements of some of the world’s smallest and least known species, and access areas that are otherwise inaccessible,” Dr Saunders said.
“We have done more than 150 test flights and have demonstrated how the drones can find and map the locations of animals with radio tags.”
Researcher Oliver Cliff, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, said the technology had generated international interest.
“Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution,” he said.
“We’ve had interest in our system from all around the world. We are still doing some fine tuning but we’ve achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting.”
Dr Saunders, a wildlife ecologist, came up with the idea eight years ago to track small dynamic migratory birds such as the endangered swift parrot.
The new system, funded by an ARC Linkage Project Grant and Loro Parque Foundacion, has been built and tested over the past two and a half years with Dr Robert Fitch and his team at the ACFR at the University of Sydney.
The robot consists of an off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The custom-built miniature receiver and antenna provide real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife, which are mapped live on a laptop.
ANU Associate Professor Adrian Manning, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, has helped the team by attaching VHF and GPS collars on bettongs at Mulligan’s Flat.
“Radio tracking of collars manually is very time consuming,” Associate Professor Manning said.
“Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods.”
Read more: Drones used to track wildlife