Researchers from the Appropriate Technologies Laboratory (LabTA) of the National University of San Luis (UNSL) developed a drone with open access and low-cost technology that allows for intelligent reforestation. The project, named Sustainable Hawkeyeuses artificial intelligence techniques to make the drone fly over the area, detect areas without vegetation and drop seeds efficiently to reach land that would be difficult to reach with the traditional method of sowing by hand.
“In the laboratory we have the premise of doing everything with open technology, so that it is freely accessible and low cost.. Just as we use open source technology to develop our systems, what we manufacture is also uploaded to the network so that it can be replicated by anyone anywhere in the world,” says the engineer. Carlos Catuogno, project manager. And he continues: “We aim to use it in the Morro Basin, but others can adapt it to their needs, make improvements and put it back into the network so that it continues to grow.”
The Morro Basin is an extensive area located in San Luis that has been on alert since 2016, when the provincial government decreed an environmental emergency in the area and began to work on afforestation with native trees. Deforestation, as a result of the advance of the agricultural frontier on pastures and native forests, generated a water imbalance in the basin and produced an increase in rainfall. This led to the appearance of new water courses, which cross fields and roads, cause flooding and affect nearby cities, such as Villa Mercedes.
Open technology and low cost
The LabTA-X04 has the ability to detect which are the areas without vegetation and perform an intelligent release of seeds. This drone is battery powered and measures three meters from wing to wing. It has two electric motors and a warehouse where it can carry a payload equivalent to three kilos of seeds. On the front, there are cameras and software that allows soil analysis to distinguish which are the areas without vegetation.
“It is a low-cost development because we use open technology and materials that are used for any model airplane.such as balsa wood, plywood, some plastic and styrofoam, which are also all elements that can be found anywhere,” he says. Catuogno. The drone uses the open source software Infragram to process the images and another one developed by them with OpenCV and Python that indicates when to download seeds, according to an artificial intelligence algorithm.
The seeds released by the drone correspond to native species that are produced at the Faculty of Agronomy of the UNSL and processed with the Japanese Nendo Dango method.. This technique consists of making clay balls where the seeds are placed together with a vegetable substrate and water. The objective is to provide them with protection for when they are deposited on the ground and prevent them from being eaten by birds, rodents and other animals. With the first heavy rain, the clay pellets break up and sprout.
“We have already carried out various tests within the Villa Mercedes flying club, where we analyzed the detection of areas without vegetation, the release of seeds and different atmospheric variables. The prototype is now ready to carry out a field test in the Morro Basinfor which you must have an authorization”, indicates the project director.
At the end of 2022, the drone was awarded in INNOVAR, the national innovation contest of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation that encourages creativity and the development of products and services at the federal level. In the coming months, the researchers will carry out field tests to verify the operation of the system with different wind conditions and to improve the software parameters. Then, they will evaluate which are the best moments to carry out the planting and thus contribute to the reforestation of the Basin.
For Catuogno, the technological transfer of this development has two possible paths. “The main recipient could be the provincial government, which is working on reforestation in the area. If they are interested, we can transfer the technology to them and have them build a larger version or we can do it ourselves, ”he warns. Beyond this specific objective, the idea is that knowledge is freely accessible so that anyone can use it and adapt it according to their needs.
background and podium
Hawk’s Eye began to take shape in 2017. LabTA researchers specialize in the study of microgrids, that is, various types of electrical connections. First, together with Guillermo Catuogno, director of the laboratory and brother of Carlos, they focused on studying the operation of microgrids inside drones, with the aim of increasing flight time from the use of solar energy. For it, formed a team with colleagues from the National Universities of Villa Mercedes and Río Cuarto. It was then that they learned of the existence of the environmental problem in Cuenca del Morro.
“It is an area where enough deforestation has been done to plant crops. Some time ago a river suddenly appeared, the Río Nuevo, and began to generate canyons several meters deep that cut roads and fields in the middle”, explains the engineer. So, They thought of making a drone that can be used to monitor the area and provide images that can be used by other scientists to study the phenomenon..
The researchers got down to business and designed the LabTA-X03 prototype, a four-meter-long aircraft with solar panels on its wings. The use of renewable energy, in addition to being another aspect that makes it sustainable, gives the drone greater flight autonomy. It also has photographic and video cameras that allow images to be transmitted in real time. and monitor the progress of the New River.
In 2020, the specialists submitted the prototype to an international competition in Singapore, held virtually, and won second place. The victory encouraged them to go for more and they decided to develop a new drone that not only serves to monitor but also has concrete action to reverse deforestation.