Autonomy for UAVs

Cranfield University is leading the development of new autonomous UAV technology as part of the CASCADE EPSRC project. Autonomy is a fundamental enabling factor in achieving the wider adoption of UAVs in the UK’s airspace. Initially CASCADE is focusing on demonstrating the benefits that multiple autonomous UAVs can have within a precision agriculture environment. Other use cases are being considered during the project to enable quick ‘spin off’ adoption into other applications. 

UAVs are well suited for spatial data collection and evidence-based decision making within agriculture. Early adoption of UAVs as part of farming workflows has shown quantifiable benefit, such as early identification of areas of crop stress. However, due to regulations and large data processing requirements, a practical daily survey limit is circa 200 hectares per UAV. Large crop index maps are subsequently produced resulting in a 24 hour wait for information for farmers. Farmers still then need to visit identified area for them to see a real ‘Ground Truth’. 

CASCADE is automating the process from initial survey data collection through to Ground Truth with the expectation that Ground Truth Data is available to farmers faster (the same day), without a need for them to visit each identified area, and thereby reducing human input and cost. 

The workflow involves a higher level UAV collecting and processing multispectral image & location data, then communicating waypoints for lower level UAVs to fly to and capture Ground Truth information. The design of this autonomous architecture requires experimental research including machine learning, image processing, task allocation, remote communication, and mission planning. 

In addition to this, CASCADE will also demonstrate how multiple UAVs can be incorporated to achieve this same-day result, and thereby demonstrate a more cost effective yet safe surveying method. Technology that allows UAV operation at extended and beyond visual line of sight will also be included in the experimental research. Both aspects are necessary to enable development of UAV regulation in the UK, and to convey how multiple autonomous UAVs can benefit wider UK industry. 

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