When it was hit by the recent unprecedented floods, one challenge the government and local administrations in Kerala faced was in locating exactly where people were stranded in the state’s densely populated villages and towns. As a result, rescue workers not familiar with the area and terrain spent precious time finding ways to reach them.
Now imagine a small flying machine, capable of taking 3D images of the area, giving precise locations of the people, and ways to reach them.
Welcome, then, to the world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones as they are commonly called. Experts and industry insiders say UAVs can do much more than take pictures or be used for surveillance — they can deliver medical supplies, make high-risk jobs safer, help plan disaster prevention, improve farming, and protect endangered species.
Switzerland, with its reputation for excellence and innovation and a long history of precision engineering, is becoming a hub of this micro-technology development.
Earlier this year, an association for drone manufacturers – Drone Industry Association – was formed in the country. The association calls itself Home of Drones, and already claims to have nearly two dozen members.
“For the last few years, there has not been many innovations other than optimising what we already have, in aviation or automobile industries. Innovation is taking place in the drone industry, the days of drones used for transportation and carrying people are not far,” Simon Johnson, vice-president of Drone Industry Association, said.
The association was formed to represent, defend, promote drone companies in Switzerland and to boost export.
Johnson said drones will be a great help in monitoring dams, nuclear plants and even making tourism much more exciting.
Johnson, who pointed out that the industry has already provided more than 3,000 jobs in the last two years in Switzerland, is already talking about drone ports – a spot for fixing, re-charging and making parts. “Evolution of its infrastructure will be interesting,” he said.
Stringent regulations or absence of proper policy prevent drones from meeting their potential growth. But Robert Leake, sales manager at SenseFly, the Lausanne-based company that produces drones, is excited to see that the Indian government has firmed up regulations.
Founded in 2009, SenseFly manufactures approximately 100 drones a month. It is into researching and developing drones that can give more precise and efficient topology monitoring that would come in use in disaster management.
“Geospatial (industry) is the main market for drones as of now and flood management is one of the main component in it,” Leake said. “If drones can be used for relief and rescue operation during floods, they can be used to map flood…(or) to prepare against it. Exact aerial views are beneficial in understanding the nature of flood and infrastructure can be built to protect those areas,” Leake explained.
The price of these drones – which can fly up to 59 minutes at once – range from 15,000 Euro to 25,000 Euro (approximately Rs 12.6 lakh to Rs 21 lakh) depending on the area it can map. A professional, automated mapping drone like senseFly’s eBee RTK will cost about $25,000 (approx. Rs 18.11 lakh).
Juan Herrera, an Argentinian who came to Switzerland to work with Agroscope in Changins, a Swiss centre of excellence in agricultural research, said drones can be a big leap in digital innovations in farming. “With the government focusing on new innovations in agriculture sector, focusing on the protection of environment and the entire chain of food sector, the use of drones and robots are significant,” Herrera said.
There are a number of start-ups in this country that offers drones for crop duster spraying. It is used not just for pesticides, but for spraying organic and alternative treatments because drones have to ability to be very precise and it would not impact as intense are tractors and other methods on the soil, or on other crops.
Even vine growers started using them to identify areas where the plants need more water and fertiliser – and even to identify the quality of grapes.
Smart-farming in Switzerland may still have a long way to go but it has already started using enabling technology to increase productivity, reduce the quantity of herbicides used, and improve efficiency of production and distribution. Herrera tried to demonstrate the use of a prototype robot that identifies weed based on nitrogen content on leaves and use area-specific herbicides. But with rapeseed plants being too small — they were just an inch long — the robot refused to function.
The drone developed at the robotic lab of ETH Zurich has taken care of that, too. Under the project ‘Flourish – Collaborative Robots for Precision Farming’, researchers have come up with a prototype robot that identifies, mark and stomp even the smallest weeds, or pumps fixed at the machine would use herbicide against them. Raghav Khanna, of ETH Zurish, said the idea behind both the drone and the robot was to “automate all hard stuff about precision farming so that it can enable more sustainable farming”.
Khanna argued that using drones to map, monitor and assess plants in farms is not a distant dream as drones with efficient cameras are available even at less that 1000 francs. ETH has also developed and tested a solar cube, an improvised version of drone for assessing larger areas. The solar cube – AtlanticSolar – had undertaken its autonomous and solar-powered flight in the polar region, passing a 13- hour endurance test and surveying the glaciers in Greenland.
The impetus to these innovations will be the governmental push for digital innovations in different sectors.
According to Eliane Kerstein of Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation agency, 3.42 per cent of the country’s GDP was spent on R&D in 2015. Innosuisse’s annual budget for science-based innovations itself is CHF 200 million. Among the many drone projects backed by EPFL and funded by Innosuisse is Elios, a drone equipped with a protective cage used for inspections in energy production and in the oil and gas industry. The start-up, Flyability, has customers in the US and Asia apart from Europe.
However, in sectors such as farming, and even in transportation, earning trust and confidence of farmers and common people in drones could be a tough task. “People will have to feel safe and effective. Earning the confidence of the users is a challenge in getting it a wider acceptance,” Johnson said.