eBee UAV creates a buzz with IWMI scientists
IWMI scientists have been enjoying stunning bird’s eye views of rice fields in Sri Lanka, using a unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.
They have been conducting test flights with the Swiss-manufactured Electronic Bee, or eBee, to take snapshots of paddy fields in the country’s northern Anuradhapura district.
The team plans to use the information to provide regular updates on areas under irrigation and water use on farms.
Drones are becoming popular with researchers as prices continue to fall and the technology becomes increasingly user-friendly. Equipped with an onboard camera, drones can capture information at a much higher resolution than satellite images.
“When we got the first pictures back from the drone, we were delighted,” said IWMI’s Salman Siddiqui, head of the organization’s geographic information systems (GIS) unit. “The detail and clarity were spectacular.”
Before each flight, the eBee is loaded with a mission details (user-defined route and flight parameters). It then takes off, flies and lands automatically using its built-in, artificial intelligence (AI) module and Global Positioning System (GPS).
Its onboard 16-megapixel camera takes photographs of the ground in very high detail. With the spatial resolution of each image up to 3cm, the images are significantly more detailed than those from satellite images, such as those used by Google Earth (5 m).
Since the drone flies at a low altitude, picture clarity is not affected by cloud cover – a major limitation of satellite images. Drones also give scientists complete control over the frequency with which the images are updated, while those from satellites are usually refreshed every 15 days or so.
Each eBee flight can last up to 45 minutes on a single charge, depending on wind-speed and altitude. The drone is equipped with sensors that keep it stable in case of changes in the wind, and to avoid a variety of flying objects, from birds to helicopters. If it rains, the drone automatically returns to its starting point on land.
With the drone safely back on the ground, scientists download the images. They can stitch together multiple photographs to produce a digital surface model in virtual 3D. This could be particularly useful for hydrological modeling and identifying areas vulnerable to flooding.
In the event of catastrophic flooding, the drone could help IWMI make quick assessments of affected areas that might be hard to access on the ground. This in turn could help with emergency relief efforts.
Eye in the sky
Researchers in West Africa have also been using a drone as part of the IWMI-supported UrbanFoodPlus project.
Led by the University of Freiburg, scientists have been flying an eBee above the town of Tamale in Ghana’s Northern Region.
They are using the information to measure the extent of the land under cultivation at the end of the dry season. In the future they hope to turn these into year-round assessments, and will also take the technology to sites in and around Ouagadougou, in neighboring Burkina Faso.
In a joint effort with Gottingen University, they also plan to combine data from the drone with information from farmers, to get a better idea of urban pressure on agricultural land.