New collab. opens drone tech for all

A partnership between a U lab and Sentera seeks to expand drone technology opportunities.

Keaton Schmitt

Automated drones could soon be buzzing high above fields across the globe because of new University of Minnesota technology.
The University’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Laboratories recently partnered with a private drone company to create a toolkit that includes software and hardware to improve drones, with free-to-use blueprints available to anyone.
The toolkit includes a small modular computer that serves as the core of a drone and allows users to connect extra sensors or equipment if needed.
It also contains basic programs that act like a foundation for any software a developer might add, said Brian Taylor, director of the UAV lab.
The toolkit’s blueprints and software are open-source, which means they are available for free online to anyone who wants to use them.
“These things you buy off the shelf, they’re pretty closed-source. You don’t have all the information,” Taylor said. “[With the toolkit], not only is all the software open … you can look at [the hardware] and get [it] manufactured yourself [and] modify it yourself however you need.” 
The new technology is an improvement on a previous platform used by the lab, he said. The previous version is also used by NASA and the German Space Agency for UAV research.
Taylor said the hope is anyone who wants to work with or create new programs for UAV can do so more easily with the toolkit, even if they don’t have the resources of the University lab.
The lab plans to use the toolkit as the basis for its agriculture research, Taylor said, adding that lab workers are building a program to estimate the number of insects — specifically Aphids — present on plants.
By flying a UAV over fields, experts can measure if the plants have subtly changed color in response to insects, which would reduce cost of current inspections done by humans, Taylor said.
“When plants are stressed, their reflectance and certain wavelengths will change, so we can look at those specific wavelengths,” he said. “If we see those changes, we can say the plant is probably stressed, and it’s probably because [of] these Aphids.” 
In the future, the new technology could be used to automatically inspect broken infrastructure, Taylor said. The lab, however, has not yet worked on that project.
Sentera, the company partnering with the University on the toolkit, designed and built the hardware with input from the lab, said Sentera CEO and University alumnus Eric Taipale.
The toolkit is designed to change and improve continuously, he said, adding that the open-source license will allow anyone to improve it.
“The pure intent of this was to get it to a place were it’s very easy to take a module out of this and replace it with something better,” he said.
Alongside faculty members, about 30 graduate and undergraduate students help in the lab by writing code and working on experiments. 
“This gave me an opportunity to see all aspects of design, to see something go from design to building to flying it,” said Aerospace Engineering senior Ryan Condron, who works in the lab.