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The rise of UAVs in agriculture, airports, more

December 18, 2019  - By

UAVs are finding places in the lives of more people than ever — farmers employing crop-spraying drones to counter a locust infestation in Pakistan, finding the way towards useful inspection tasks at an operating airport in the U.K., large airborne vehicles providing joy-rides around the U.S., and unfortunately showing up where they are not wanted so security staff have to use protection systems to deal with them.

Crop Spraying

New unmanned air vehicle (UAV) applications keep appearing. Once they do, they start to spread locally and even around the world. Crop management using UAVs has significantly progressed.

The U.S. has used crop spraying to improve crop yield for many years, defending against insect infestation and plant diseases. GNSS guidance systems for crop-spraying aircraft was an early satnav equipment application that eventually became a standard for any fliers contacted by farmers to apply pesticides to protect their crops. Then companies began offering turn-key spraying, which was highly efficient and effective.

UAVs are now entering this segment — they are capable of carrying higher capacity tanks, and autonomous/semi-autonomous navigation enables spraying with minimum supervision. This option is becoming more readily available to the farmer and costs less than using manned aircraft.

Both Japan and China have used UAVs extensively for crop spraying; other countries turning to the solution are Africa, the U.S. and India. In China, more than a hundred different types of UAV are in use in agricultural applications.

Farms around the mega-city of Karachi, Pakistan, have been infested by locusts, but the local government is short of the helicopters and ground applicators normally used for spraying pesticides. A recent graduate returning from his doctoral course in China brought with him knowledge of unmanned vehicle use in agriculture, and is urging rapid local adoption of UAV technologies to combat the locust infestation.

Pakistani agriculture expert Shahzad Nahiyoon claims that UAVs are better suited to crop protection for small farms within difficult contours of the surrounding region. They are less expensive to operate than manned fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, may be operated locally from outside spray contamination zones, and can spray in confined areas. Equipped with a 20-liter tank, spraying one or two 20-meter-wide swaths, 6 to 10 hectares per hour can be treated.

Drones at the airport

Growing a little weary of drone incidents around airports, I was pleased to see a report I had overlooked from a year ago which indicated that trials at Manchester airport in UK had demonstrated airport and drone compatibility. This basically happened because an Air Traffic Control (ATC) system for unmanned aircraft or Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) was shown to keep drones flying around the airport under full control while integrated with regular airport and drone operations.

The trial — referred to as Operation Zenith — sponsored by the National Air Traffic Systems (NATS), made us of the GuardianUTM airspace management system, supplied by Altitude Angel, as the control system for eight trial drone missions at the airport. The drone UTM system was connected to the real-time Air Traffic Management (ATM) system which manages ground and air traffic at the airport, to ensure the control and safe separation of drones and aircraft. The UTM system also provided controllers with a real-time view of all operating drones.

The trial demonstrated the efficient regulation of drone traffic within and around the extremely sensitive airport region. Everyone engaged in the trial made use of real-time electronic map displays driven by the UTM system, showing everything flying in and around the airport; aircraft and drones. Drone pilots used this information to ensure their operations remained safe while operating so close to commercial aircraft in the air and on the ground.

NATS has now formed a strategic partnership with Altitude Angel to deliver this integrated UTM system at airports in the United Kingdom. The UTM system has successfully completed initial pilot trial and evaluation and now NATS intends to further demonstrate UAV management control at six U.K. airports later this year.

Thousands sign for ride with Lift Aircraft

Hexa in flight (Photo: Lift)

Hexa in flight (Photo: Lift)

Lift Aircraft unveiled its 18-rotor Hexa unmanned/manned aircraft more than a year ago — what’s new now is that 13,000 people have signed up to take one for a ride.

The large drone weighs in at 432 pounds and can fly for 10-15 minutes with a single passenger.

The Hexa is controlled by a single joystick, and an onboard iPad provides route guidance and manages take-off and landing. Classed as a powered ultralight air vehicle, it can be flown without a pilot’s license, so Lift announced that it will offer Hexa flights to anyone wanting to fly (in 25 selected U.S. cities) provided they physically fit into it and weigh less than 250 pounds.

Lift intends to map each recreational flight area in 3D, and plug this map into the vehicle control system. The 13,000 people who signed up can expect to pay $125-250 for each joy ride. Lift has yet to announce the first location where the fun rides will take place.

Counter-UAS system downs drones in Philippines

The Southeast Asian Games were recently held in the Philippines with thousands of participants from eleven countries of Southeast Asia — the event was spread across 23 cities around the country. However, a number of uninvited drones showed up during the opening ceremonies on November 30th to take a look, but fortunately all were quickly dispatched.

The DroneShield counter-UAS system had been deployed in advance for protection of the event, and the local security forces used the system to detect and disable the invaders. According to the company, security personnel found the drones using body worn RF detection devices, and the Dronegun was then used to disable them.

Jamming the control link and GNSS L1 and L2 frequencies, UAVs are generally stopped in mid-flight when illuminated by the rifle-like device. DroneNode jammer in a suitcase was also used to provide blanket protection over a 1km circular area when the alarm was raised.

In all, seven unauthorized drones were disabled, some of which were apparently flying near the intended flight path of the helicopter bringing President Rodrigo Duterte to the opening ceremony.


It might seem a little ridiculous that we’ve had to come up with systems to counter uninvited or malicious drones (C-UAS). Making provisions for protection is probably something most sensitive facilities will have to do. Its possible that governments may already be investing in such technology to protect many facilities. More drones available for useful, productive and even recreational applications means some can end up in the wrong hands.

Nevertheless, good stuff comes out of drone applications, and the benefits seem to by far outweigh the need to protect ourselves against bad actors.