Up in Frames: AgroFlight; How Automation is Reshaping the Agricultural Industry

Khan, Zach, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Earle, Joshua, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

As the world’s population growth rate continues to increase, farmers will need to increase output at an even higher rate due to non-linear scaling in sources of loss as well as more demand for alternative products. This is coupled with the fact that there is a noticeable decrease in the number of workers in agriculture. Some reasons for this include stagnant wages compared to other labor-intensive industries, lack of new employees due to preference of an urban environment, and locally owned farms being bought out by corporations or being forced to close their doors. Automation is also removing many historically manual labor jobs, which translates to people losing their jobs due to a skill mismatch. However, due to such labor shortages, automation may be the best solution for agriculture to meet its growth requirements. Many advanced technologies are already thoroughly tested products that can be implemented in the field soon. Automatic irrigation by measuring soil water content, sorting and packing harvested crops for shipping, and even controlling harvest tractors from an internet connected device are just a few examples.
The product built to join this lineup is a drone designed to by flown to many locations in a field and measure the Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium content of soil. These are the most important nutrients needed for plant growth and are necessary to understand the amount and type of fertilizer needed for a particular part of a field. However, excess nutrients can run off with water and end up polluting local water sources. The AgroFlight drone allows farmers to get a better resolution of which specific areas need what nutrient. As a proof of concept, it is a Wi-Fi controlled quadcopter that is capable of flying for ten minutes. It measures the levels of nutrients using a special electrical sensor as opposed to the more common chemical or mass analysis. A custom designed and 3-D printed frame serves as the structural core of the drone. The frame includes the wings, electronic housing, and the electrically actuated landing gear. Commercial off the shelf drone electronics are used due to the saturation of the market with products at competitive prices. The bridge between the human controller and the drone is a custom flight computer. This microcontroller with a custom designed breakout front end printed circuit board is the brains of the drone as it needs to keep the drone stable even if a pilot is not controlling it. It is also designed to use a distance sensor to automate takeoff and landing which are more complicated procedures for new pilots. AgroFlight also features hardware that can interface with software that can automatically fly the drone to specific GPS coordinates. The intended use for this product is for farmers to be able to collect more localized soil data as well as a higher frequency of data collection, compared to collecting bags of soil and sending them to the nearest lab for a weeklong inspection.
This drone can significantly boost productivity on a farm, but it has the power to take away a job from someone who would manually collect soil samples. However, it also creates a job for a drone pilot. The ideal scenario is for the same worker to be retrained so that they have relevant skills to the necessary technologies of a modern farm. This phenomenon is known as job displacement and challenges the idea of jobs being lost due to technological advances. Many large American businesses agree that upskilling their employees is an important focus, and that they would prefer to do it over having government run retraining programs. They note that they feel vastly unprepared to take on this challenge though. If already trained new employees take a job in agriculture, governments do have the ability to reduce the financial stress of the previous employee during their unemployment spell. However, the laws related to unemployment insurance vary from state to state and often leave workers taking large pay cuts. This was the result of seismic outsourcing in the manufacturing sector, which it still has not recovered from.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
drone, agriculture, Wi-Fi, interview, GPS, PCB, 3D-printing

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry C. Powell, Jr.
STS Advisor: Joshua Earle

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