Farmers’ Hi-Tech Eye in the Sky

XMobots: For a nation of continental dimensions with poor roads or land communications but extensive agriculture, mining and energy infrastructure projects, drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are the natural choice for cost-effective monitoring across Brazil.

For instance, geologists and environmental consultants charged with measuring and monitoring US$13.4 billion worth of ecological damage to the Rio Doce river catchment in Minas Gerais state following the 2015 breach of the Samarco containment dam operated by BHP Billiton and Vale, found the most practical means of surveying the spread of toxic mine tailings down the river was to use drone mapping. (see aerial image with this article).

Yet there’s something of a gap in the global market between very expensive, high-end military drones (a segment controlled by General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Textron and Boeing), and cheap, lightweight consumer models made in China able to carry little more than a digital camera aloft for short distances.

That’s the rationale behind XMobots, a specialised Brazilian startup developing and building larger and more robust drones for professional applications.

For surveying or precision agriculture, enterprise drones able to stay aloft for up to 10 hours keeping watch on farms of up to 10,000 hectares, and even undertaking localised crop spraying, are the next step.

Since 2009 XMobots – which was founded by nine master’s and PhD students and incubated at the University of São Paulo Engineering School (POLI-USP) and its Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Technology (CIETEC) – has been developing a series of remotely piloted aircraft with wingspans of up to 3.5 metres.

The first XMobot project was the Apoena – more of a tiny gasoline powered monoplane than recognisable as a modern electric powered drone – which first flew in 2008 and could carry a 10kg payload. It was used for mapping or the Jirau hydroelectric dam project on the Madeira river in Amazonia’s Rondonia.

Environmental damage to Rio Doce from mine tailings released in 2015 at Samarco mine , Minas Gerais state. Photo  XMobots.

Environmental damage to Rio Doce from mine tailings released in 2015 at Samarco mine , Minas Gerais state. Photo XMobots.

Development of this first project was part-funded by FAPESP’s PIPE programme for start-ups in 2009, in conjunction with later grants from the federal government’s FINEP and CNPq agencies. In succession, XMobots developed the Nauru 500B, Echar, Supi and Arator models, the latter with special gear designed to protect onboard cameras.

These more recent craft, including the Echar C, show increasing focus on the agribusiness sector with multi-spectral sensor cameras designed to detect crop damage and identify the sources of infestation or blight.

Accident or not, this Brazilian company is well abreast of world trends. With the global market for commercial and consumer drones expected to rise from US$$8.5 billion in 2016 to $12 billion a year in 2021, the world is experiencing an incipient love affair with this engaging – and sometimes exasperating – gadget.

What’s notable in industry forecasts – such as one by BI Intelligence – is that annual growth forecasts for so-called enterprise drones (at 51%) surpass sales of consumer toys (31%). And according to consultants PWC, agriculture will be the second most favoured segment with an overall value of US$32 billion.

According to Giovani Amianti, CEO of XMobots, its new agriculture-specific drones can undertake a variety of tasks: “With the use of a multispectral sensor, it’s possible to detect crop damage, quantify the number of plants, identify invader plants and make corrections.” Within its product range the Nauru is ideal for customers with areas exceeding 10,000 hectares. The Echar is best for areas of between 1,000 and 10,000 hectares. The Arator – 100 of which are already in commercial use – covers areas of less than 1,000 hectares.

Manta -ray styled Arator drone for  agricultural mapping. Photo XMobots.

Manta -ray styled Arator drone for agricultural mapping. Photo XMobots.

As in other countries, the proliferation of recreational drones in urban areas has heightened the concerns of civil aviation authorities, who seek to protect the environs of airport by imposing flying restrictions.

Brazil’s ANAC (National Civil Aviation Agency) and DECEA (Department of Airspace Control) normally require prior notification of drone flights in built-up areas, thus freeing air traffic controllers of the worry of unexpected incursions. So the obligatory NOTAM — Notice to Airmen, which must be issued by Air Force Command at least seven days before an unmanned aircraft operation in Brazil – serves to filter out unwanted flights. And since June 2017 ANAC has required all drone pilots to be properly trained and registered.

For this reason, exemption from NOTAM is an important marketing advantage in Brazil because without it, drones cannot practicably fly in built-up areas. However XMobots’  new Supi model is close to certification with Brazilian authorities because it will have electronic onboard features making it visible to air traffic controllers, thus permitting exemption from the 7 day advance warning rule.

You can read a detailed article about XMobots by clicking here.

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