Future engineers research using drones to help farmers

  • The Sprite drone, made by Ascent AeroSystems, is being tested. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • The Sprite drone, made by Ascent AeroSystems. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • The Sprite drone, made by Ascent AeroSystems, is being tested. A group of engineering students at the University of Massachusetts have teamed up with a South Hadley entrepreneur and the Hampshire County Radio Controllers to develop a drone-operated pest control product. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • From left, Ryan Smith, Peter Whelan and Matthew Berdell, three of six engineering students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who are developing a drone-operated pest control product. Students not pictured include Peter Choy, Wilson Huang and Nicholas Uvanovic. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 4/8/2018 6:16:12 PM

HADLEY — It’s not the type of partnership that forms every day, but it could turn out to be a fruitful match that may change the way farmers deploy agricultural chemicals.

In recent months, a team of six University of Massachusetts Amherst engineering students have been developing a drone-operated pest control product. But with little experience in how to operate a drone, the students are turning to a local group of remote controlled flying vehicle hobbyists for hands-on training flying drones.

The Hampshire County Radio Controllers will teach the students how to safely operate and understand changing policy around drones, which they will use to safely and cheaply deploy chemicals on crops. As a capstone project, the students hope to have the drone fly fully autonomous on a specified path and release chemicals with accuracy from a developed container.

“Our club is always looking to help people who are interested in the hobby,” said Leo Dube, a director at the club. “That sort of work really interests us.”

The commercial drone industry is expected to increase from 42,000 drone vehicles in 2016 to about 442,000 in 2021, according to a 2017 report by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.

Ryan Smith, a UMass mechanical engineering student leading the project, said that he was happy for the help that the radio controllers club was giving about drones.

“They also have taught us about the inner workings of drones such as batteries, GPS, and telemetry, which is vital in getting our system work without any issues,” Smith said.

The project has been given contribution funding of $500 by Steve Longpre, CEO of Barnstorm Studio LLC, a company that specializes in 3-D printing, since some parts of the drone are 3-D printed. Longpre said that he was contacted by UMass, which was seeking businesses to help give students a financial boost on their projects.

“I was looking for 3-D printing applications in engineering and agriculture, and this student capstone project came up as an option for me to get involved,” Longpre said. “I give them a small budget and the university also supports it.”

A local entrepreneur based in South Hadley, Longpre heard of the capstone project when he first helped raise money for the drone, made by Ascent AeroSystems, that the students were using in the project.

“When I got involved, the students and I talked about the different applications of this cylindrical drone and they had a lot of great ideas,” Longpre said. “I wanted to see if we could do something really ambitious for not a lot of money for applications in agriculture.”

Longpre said that he encouraged the students to change the model of their project to a company, so that eventually they could sell their product to farmers.

“Giving them that advantage connects them with the entrepreneurial aspect, it gives them control over their own project in a way that just research could not give,” Longpre said.

The drone will be designed to deploy a chemical called “Mosquito Bits,” a product that when dropped in water grows a bacteria that kills mosquito larvae. The chemical is harmless to people, pets and other animals, a press release said.

Once the drone is empty, it returns to a docking station where the container holding the chemical is switched out, refilled and then reattached to the drone.

“When the attachment on the drone is empty, it comes back to the base station and lands. The disc that holds the attachments then automatically rotates, breaking the magnetic connection between the adapter and the attachment,” Smith said. “As it rotates, a full attachment moves underneath the drone and hooks up with the adapter via the magnetic connection. The empty one is rotated to the other side of the base station and hooks up magnetically to a refiller system where it is replenished with the product.”

The engineering students hope that their product will someday be used in flooded areas to help reduce mosquito-borne illnesses like the Zika virus and malaria, the press release said.

“This system should allow for precision, automated application of granular fertilizers and other products throughout the agricultural industry,” Smith said. “It also could be of interest to municipalities and other groups looking to fight mosquitoes or other insects.”

The students will be given access to the fields the radio club has in Hadley to learn how to fly their drones.

“The students needed a place to fly, so I offered up our fields,” Dube said. “I think teaching the students is going to be fun.”

Smith says that although they have not tested their drone yet, they hope to soon.

“We hope to complete our final proof of concept by the end of this semester and then test it at an actual farm in the fall,” Smith said. “Overall, we hope that farmers and municipalities alike will get an easy to use system that can reduce overhead, and hopefully be put to work fighting mosquito borne illness and runoff pollution from agricultural chemicals.”

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