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Help from Above: Taiwanese Drone Technology

Geosat Aerospace & Technology worked with NTU’s College of Bioresources and Agriculture to use drone-mounted multi-spectrometers and combined infrared/visible-light cameras to compare growth and disease transmission among different rice varieties. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Geosat Aerospace & Technology worked with NTU’s College of Bioresources and Agriculture to use drone-mounted multi-spectrometers and combined infrared/visible-light cameras to compare growth and disease transmission among different rice varieties. (photo by Kent Chuang)
 

Thanks to Taiwan’s outstanding information and communications technology and its prowess in artificial intelligence, the island’s commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry has become a bright new star, with applications in the fields of disease prevention, disaster relief, and agriculture. In particular, UAVs—a.k.a. drones—are creating a new “flightpath” for smart agriculture in Southeast Asia.

 

During the early stages of the spread of Covid-19, Taiwan’s government was vigilant from the start, quickly implementing response mechanisms, including checking the temperatures of travelers ­entering the country at airports, and ­calling on citizens to wear facemasks and to frequently wash their hands. To effectively prevent transmission of the virus, visitors to schools and many other buildings were required to have their temperatures taken before entering, and confirmed cases were quarantined and treated. The measures succeeded in controlling the spread of the disease. In fact, when diseases strike farm crops, a set of similar response mechanisms can be applied.

Disease prevention for crops

“Last year we successfully used UAVs to control rice blast.” Lo Cheng-fang, chairman of Geosat Aerospace & Technology Inc., led his UAV team to Houbi District in Tainan City, where they used drones to detect diseased rice plants so that pesticides could be precisely applied, preventing a potential rice blast epidemic.

“Rice plants also run fevers and transmit disease to one another, just like human beings.” If even one plant in a rice paddy is infected, the rest can also be affected.

Screening out diseased plants from vast fields of rice is a difficult task for farmers, especially given the shortage of labor in rural areas. At times like these, dispatching UAVs equipped with sensors gives farmers eyes in the sky. As soon as any temperature abnormality is detected in the rice, the affected plants can be immediately identified. Scientific disease prevention measures can resolve farmers’ problems and minimize the use of agrichemicals on farmland.

UAVs can also detect the fall armyworm, which damages corn. Geosat installed “multi-spectrometers” on drones and used remote sensing technology to detect abnormalities in the chlorophyll in the corn leaves. Where there were disease symptoms, the UAVs would immediately spray pesticides to treat the plants.

UAV + AI

Applications of UAVs in smart agriculture can be enhanced with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Geosat has installed Nvidia AI computers on its drones. Now rapid processors and AI’s in-depth learning can quickly detect disease in crops remotely, from the air. If symptoms are found, the UAVs spray chemicals on the affected plants; when they encounter healthy plants, the sprays are shut off and the drones fly on.

This kind of smart recognition technology can be of great value in Southeast Asia, with its vast tracts of tropical jungle. UAVs can keep their sprays turned off while flying over the forest canopy, activating them only after reaching the target zone. Precision opera­tions and calculations are all performed by the drone, with no need to send images back to base.

Geosat not only gets help from AI but also from a vast agriscience research team working behind the scenes. Agricultural experts from the College of Bioresources and Agriculture at National Taiwan University, National Chung Hsing University, National Chiayi University, and National Pingtung University of Science and Technology provide robust support to the company.

This group of experts has enabled Geosat to gather information on disease symptoms and collect images of the growth of palm trees in Malaysia, rice in Thailand, and banana and pineapple plants in the Philippines, bringing greater precision to smart agriculture.

UAV applications

In its early days, few had heard of Geosat. It only became known to the general public at the time of the fatal gas explosions in Kaohsiung in 2014. Using high-resolution photographs taken by UAVs, it was possible to rapidly assemble a 3D model of the disaster site, quickly providing rescue agencies with complete spatial data in real time. Geosat was on hand at other disasters as well, including the burial of Kaohsiung’s Xiaolin Village by debris flows during Typhoon Morakot in 2009, the collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong apartment building in Tainan in the 2016 Southern Taiwan earthquake, and the February 2018 Hualien earthquake.

Lo Cheng-fang has personally led his UAV team to Southeast Asia. “A lot of landowners there have never had a comprehensive view of their land, and don’t even know how many trees they have.” After a flyover by Lo’s drone, Lo could instantly tell one landowner that he had 497,720 trees, with a clear photograph and GPS location for each tree. “The next time one of his trees gets sick, he can treat it immediately with the help of GPS. He’ll be able to manage his property much more efficiently.”

A new chapter for smart agriculture

Another Taiwanese UAV development company that has engaged with New Southbound Policy partner countries is Aeroprobing Inc., which has enjoyed great success in Indonesia. Last year Aeroprobing received an infusion of capital from the National Develop­ment Fund’s “Business Angel Investment Program,” making it one of four startup enterprises to receive the maximum investment of NT$20 million. CEO Lance Kao says that the main reasons the NDF went all-in on investing in the company are that, in addition to its outstanding achievements in overseas sales, the company has its own core technology and is a 100% Taiwanese startup.

Kao, who also founded the company, relates: “We are the first UAV research team in Taiwan to have completed the integration of the drone flight control system with its onboard computer.” Because Aeroprobing has developed its own core UAV control technologies, it’s not subject to the whims of others in competing for market share. “We aren’t afraid of an upstream supplier raising prices, because we’re our own upstream supplier.” Aeroprobing uses their own systems and cloud software to provide complete one-stop UAV solutions, standing out in the marketplace thanks to technological cooperation with top-flight academic institutions including National Chiao Tung University, National Chengchi University, and National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

Controlling its own core technologies, and with strong customization services, Aeroprobing works closely with domestic technology research institutes, Japan’s Blue Innovation Company, and Taiwanese firms in Indonesia. Applying UAVs to smart agriculture is one of the com­pany’s strengths. “At the very beginning, we used the AG1-O agricultural spraying drone to spray nutrients onto the tea bushes at the Fu Tea plantation in Yilan. The application of the nutrient spray was customized, with precise automated adjustments of the speed of flight and the flow rate at the spray nozzles.”

Although the tealeaves that received this “precision care” were not visibly different, the beverage they produced when steeped was noticeably better in terms of both sweetness and mouthfeel. Tea that had previously sold for NT$4000 per catty (600 grams) could now be sold for NT$6000.

High-efficiency data collection

Besides smart spraying, another function that farmers need is data collection from their fields. “UAVs are excellent tools for helping to predict the production volume of agricultural produce.” Kao says that in the past, to measure data such as soil moisture content, air temperature, plant diseases, and insect pests, it was necessary to place sensors all over the fields, resulting in steep maintenance costs.

Given concerns that sensors could be damaged by rats or water or run out of power, the only way to be sure of getting accurate data was to put them everywhere, and managing them became a headache. High-tech UAVs don’t suffer any of these problems, and a full set of precise and complex data can be collected with one pass of a sensor-­equipped drone, while farmers sit indoors in air-­conditioned comfort. That’s why when officials from the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture sought out Aeroprobing, they were interested less in the actual aircraft than in the agricultural data that the company collected.

UAVs are not only valuable in disaster ­emergencies and security applications, but can also be used for inspect­ing roads and bridges, in precision crop care for smart agriculture, and in urban management. They can even detect radiation and can be sent on missions into dangerous places, with virtually limitless potential applications. One example is a drone with an indoor naviga­tion system that Aero­probing is developing to assist in disease control. It can be used to disinfect areas inside healthcare institutions, relieving human personnel of a dangerous task.

Meanwhile, Geosat is working with a joint venture partner in Malaysia to implement smart agriculture applica­tions. Lo Cheng-fang says, “In my father’s generation, agricultural technical missions went abroad to help partner countries solve problems with food supply.” Today Taiwan is simply taking a different approach, using the Internet of Things and unmanned vehicle technology to upgrade the quality of agricultural technical services. As drone makers from Taiwan have taken their products and services abroad, the world has come to see our country as a shining example of how UAV technology can be used.