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Here's John Deere's Cropdusting Drone

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Volocopter/John Deere

From Popular Mechanics

  • The 18-rotor VoloDrone could save farmers money by reducing waste and overhead.
  • Farmers have long embraced innovation, including other autonomous helpers.
  • Volocopter’s drone has potential applications in many other industries.

Volocopter, the multicopter startup, has partnered with John Deere to announce a planned cropdusting craft, Tech Crunch reports. Volocopter’s base VoloDrone will be fitted with an agricultural trim package to allow more controlled spread of farming chemicals with potential for less waste and maybe even less cost overall.

A traditional helicopter has one or sometimes two rotors, and each rotor has a curved cross-section like that of an airplane wing. These rotors can tilt like a plane’s wing flaps. On the typical consumer-use drone, there are four rotors that are mounted at a fixed, static angle⁠—one at each corner, which mimics the full range of motion and attack angle of a traditional helicopter. (Helicopters with two rotors are usually using the second rotor to generate more lift overall in order to carry heavier payloads.)

But Volocopter’s VoloDrone design has a whopping 18 rotors, capping off a Dungeons & Dragons’ dice bag of hexacopters (six rotors), octocopters (eight rotors), and more. Volocopter says the small, electric, remote-controlled craft can carry over 400 pounds for about 30 minutes. Each can be programmed to follow a set path, which saves time and money over manual control for farmers who run the same routes as part of a routine. Even manual remote control is a far cry from the industry standard of hiring piloted helicopters or kitted-out small agricultural planes.

Volocopter claims its air taxis and other models have received the first permit for multicopter flight, but multicopters, even if novel, have actually existed in some form for decades. George de Bothezat fled Russia in the 1910s and was hired by the U.S. military to develop a four-rotor helicopter aptly called the De Bothezat Helicopter. Other experimental crafts had varying amounts of success over time. Certainly nothing mainstream has approached the 18-rotor system of the manned Volocopter and the unmanned VoloDrone.

Drone startups and agriculture may not seem like the most natural pairing, but small farms especially are working on razor-thin profit margins that larger farms aren’t subject to. Especially when much of modern farming involves proprietary crops and fertilizers, the cost of overapplying nutrients and chemicals can be great.

On top of that, careful, specific application is one of the fundamental ways farmers can reduce agricultural runoff from crops. Wasting less of these costly products benefits farmers and their communities alike. If the VoloDrone partnership proves successful, it isn’t hard to imagine a tax break for use of a greener technology, like the ones given to consumers and businesses that use greener building technology and keep their appliances up to date.

Agriculture isn’t the only potential market for a more efficient form of distribution from the air. Airplanes that drop a payload of water or fire retardant are one of the major and most costly ways to attempt to fight wildfires. Chemicals in dry powder or foam form may be compatible with the relatively small payload (440 pounds is about 50 gallons of water) of a VoloDrone-style electric craft. The electric Volocopter original model is approved for carrying people, and its precise flight and relatively small form factor may suit it for dropping firefighters directly where they need to go.

The John Deere Company, nearly 200 years old, started with its own contemporary innovation. John Deere himself developed a new kind of steel plow that revolutionized farming in the unfamiliar soil systems across the Midwest. Farming has always thrived on innovation, and the future may just be in unmanned drone deliveries.

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