Ms. Edobong Akpabio is an "agropreneur", consultant, mentor, and CEO of Visionage Agrotech Farms in Lagos, Nigeria. Professor Dr. Guido de Croon is a decorated researcher and scientist with a personal goal to show people the positive impact that drones can have. He works on creating insect-inspired smart drones at the TU Delft Micro Air Vehicle Lab. These drones are tiny, efficient, autonomous bots that specialise in performing "autonomous swarm exploration of unknown environments." When asked what his personal motivation was for getting into micro air vehicles, Professor de Croon talked about wanting to change the perception of drones and drone technology. "A long time ago, when people talked about drones, they always talked about the three D's: dangerous, dull, and dirty. To me, this had such a negative ring to it! Instead, I want the 3 F's: I want things that are functional, fun, and friendly." Ms. Akpabio and Professor de Croon discuss the technology, application, and future of these bio-inspired micro air vehicles.

The video above shows small drones that can collectively map and explore a large area by working together and sharing information with each other.

Learning safety around humans from insects
It's important that drones can be seen as safe to use and safe for humans to be around. "If you want drones to work in greenhouses or orchards, there are people there too. And as it's been mentioned before, it's important for these machines to have a good relationship with people. In my eyes, it starts with safety. Drones need to be safe. And one way to make the really safe is to make them as light as possible for the task at hand." According to Professor de Croon, the drones in the video have a diameter of between 10-20 centimeters and weigh only 33 grams! These bots are small but smart, so "they can collaborate and explore a space together."

Professor de Croon and this team try to achieve this maximum compact efficiency and safety around humans with bio-inspiration. As the term would suggest, this means building machines that are intelligent and collaborative in the way insects are. "I look at how insects tackle their tasks. Because insects are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. And of course they're much more intelligent than our drones. But I just try to humbly approach that kind of intelligence with the drones. This means we can keep them light and safe and smart."

it's important for these machines to have a good relationship with people
A variety of agricultural applications
Next, the pair discuss specific benefits of using drones in agriculture. Besides applications such as that envisioned by PATS, another example in which drones can be useful in agriculture is as an observer. "Often we think about a big land that a big drone flies over to take pictures, but I think that my work is tuned towards bringing them closer to humans and closer to the ground." Professor de Croon and his team are currently collaborating on a project where these drones would be used in greenhouses to fly around and take pictures of plants in order to monitor pests and disease. “These are now hard to detect, but if you can detect them early enough, you can take measures before they become a problem and you have to throw away crops.” This is especially valuable in situations such as with olive trees in Italy, because the trees are incredibly old, so it would be a huge loss if they die from pests.

Even more interestingly, there is a plan to make these drones smarter still through the use of AI training to detect these pest and disease problems. At first the drones will “fly, take pictures, and send the pictures to the experts. But then the experts will teach these drones to make observations with AI by pointing out and highlighting where exactly you can see problems in plants. Then basically you have these tiny drones gathering data and flying around the greenhouse, and a cloud computer that looks at it with the eye of an expert. This high quality advice is available all over the world, and the hardware on the ground isn’t necessarily that expensive.”

The systems we work on make the drone more intelligent in a cheap and light way.

When asked where else in the agricultural supply chain he thinks these drones could have a positive effect, Professor de Croon thinks that they could also be incredibly useful in warehouses. “In the warehouse, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of stock because of the many many tall shelves. Sometimes you might need to close the whole warehouse down for a day and have many employees on machines going up and down just to take stock. But drones can do this much quicker, and much more often.” A key caveat of this sort of application is that the drones can be safe around humans so workers can work in conjunction with them without needing to take extra safety precautions, such as wearing hard hats. But since these drones are designed with insect like awareness and intelligence, they are perfectly light and safe.

Professor de Croon also sees potential in drones being used to carry and transport small cargo across difficult terrain. “We work on drones that can take off vertically, transition into a horizontal plane, and fly very far. And when they arrive, they can land autonomously.” However, Professor de Croon points out that this application might not be very practical in the agricultural sector, since agricultural cargo or crops are quite large.

Making drones affordable and available
Exploring the possibility of shared or communal drones, Professor de Croon talked about the idea that a Dutch had a few years ago: to have drones in boxes in different locations that could be rented out and used by multiple users. This could be an incredibly viable option with smallholder farmers in the African region, because “multiple farmers in the same region could use the same drone, one on one day and another one the next day. Or if the police need to use it because there’s been an accident, they can reserve it too. So you could definitely have drones that are shared property.” However, Professor de Croon contends that he hopes this will not be necessary, as the point of making these vehicles light, efficient, and simple is so that they are affordable and readily available.

Even the cheapest of drones can do very intelligent behaviours

“My hope is that with small drones, we make them cheap enough that we hope they’re more available to everybody. Because even the cheapest of drones can do very intelligent behaviours. One one hand, drones can be shared if they’re expensive, but we should try to work on cheap solutions in terms of drone hardware that don’t require someone to be an expert to use it. It should be an intuitive interaction with the system, and the drones should hide complexities with the user.”

Starting small, building big
Wrapping up the interview, Ms. Akpabio asks about something that has been discussed extensively “in house” at The African Farmer Stories - how do we kick it off? “What’s a suitable pilot project to demonstrate the workings of drone technology?” Professor de Croon has an insightful answer, centered around parallel paths of development and application..

On one hand, much of this technology is already being tested by parties like PATS with applications such as pest elimination, or by Professor de Croon’s team who work with observation applications. “From both applications, there are still doubts, especially around the economic model. I think those doubts will disappear. But it's obvious we're still early in the technology curve; we're also developing as we're launching.” This can be hard because throughout all the research, systems are being built and shown. However, it isn’t always possible to see the full potential of the system if it’s constantly being improved and implemented. That’s not a reason to wait and not use this technology though.

“If you take a system now the way it is, it may not show you all the advantages that you will get from it in the future. But if we don’t do it now, then we never get to the future. So we need to get started on multiple things. Just taking initiative and making it possible, wherever that is in the world. ”