Argentine researchers develop drone for smart reforestation

Researchers at the Appropriate Technologies Laboratory (LabTA) at the National University of San Luis (UNSL) have developed a drone with open access and low-cost technology that enables smart reforestation. The project, named sustainable hawkuses artificial intelligence techniques to make the drone fly over the area, detect areas without vegetation and efficiently drop seeds to reach terrain that is difficult to reach with the traditional method of manual seeding.

In the laboratory we have the premise of doing everything with open technology, so that it is freely accessible and at 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 intend to use it in Bacia do Morro, but others can adapt it to their needs, make improvements and put it back in the network so that it continues to grow”.

The Morro Basin is an extensive area located in San Luis that has been in a state of alert since 2016, when the provincial government declared an environmental emergency in the area and started to work on reforestation with native trees. Deforestation, due to the advance of the agricultural frontier over pastures and native forests, generated a water imbalance in the basin and produced an increase in rainfall. This gave rise to new watercourses, which cross fields and roads, causing floods and affecting nearby towns, such as Villa Mercedes.

Open technology and low cost

The LabTA-X04 has the ability to detect which areas are without vegetation and carry out an intelligent seed release. This drone is battery powered and measures three meters from wing to wing. It has two electric motors and a warehouse where it can transport a load equivalent to three kilos of seeds. At the front, there are cameras and software that allow soil analysis to distinguish areas without vegetation.

It is a low-cost development because we use open technology and materials that are used for any model aircraft.such as balsa wood, plywood, some plastics and Styrofoam, which are also elements that can be found anywhere”, he says. Catuogno. The drone uses the Infragram open source software to process the images and another developed by them with OpenCV and Python that indicates when to download the seeds, according to an artificial intelligence algorithm.

The seeds released by the drone correspond to native species that are produced at the UNSL Faculty of Agronomy and processed with the Japanese method Nendo Dango.. This technique consists of making clay balls where the seeds are placed together with a vegetable substrate and water. The objective is to protect them when they are deposited in the ground and to prevent them from being eaten by birds, rodents and other animals. With the first heavy rain, the clay granules break down and sprout.

“We have already carried out several tests at the Villa Mercedes aeroclub, 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 authorization is required”, says the project director.

At the end of 2022, the drone was awarded at INNOVAR, a national innovation contest of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation which encourages creativity and the development of products and services at the federal level. In the next few months, the researchers will carry out field tests to verify the system’s operation with different wind conditions and to improve the software parameters. Afterwards, they will assess the best times 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 reforesting 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. In addition to 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, different types of electrical connections. First, together with Guillermo Catuogno, director of the laboratory and Carlos’ brother, they focused on studying how microgrids work inside drones, with the aim of increasing flight time using solar energy. For that, 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 already been done for planting. Some time ago, a river suddenly appeared, the Río Nuevo, and began to generate canyons several meters deep that cut roads and fields in half”, explains the engineer. Then, They thought of making a drone that could be used to monitor the area and provide images that could be used by other scientists to study the phenomenon..

The researchers got to work and designed the LabTA-X03 prototype, a four-metre-long aircraft with solar panels on the 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 the transmission of images in real time. and monitor the progress of the Rio Novo.

In 2020, experts submitted the prototype to an international competition in Singapore, held virtually, and won second place. The victory spurred them to seek more and they decided to develop a new drone that not only serves to monitor, but also has concrete actions to reverse deforestation.

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