Volocopter + John Deere = VoloDrone

You know you are onto something when John Deere himself decides to invest in an agricultural drone.

The 200-year old agriculture machinery manufacturer, which has offices in South Africa, has partnered with German-based air taxi transportation startup Volocopter, to produce an aerial crop-dusting drone that is scheduled to be in issue in time for this year’s European farming season.

Of course, there is no price for guessing why Volocopter would name their agricultural prototype the Volodrone. Proud for giving the world its first air taxi in 2017, Volocopter is an urban air mobility company that wishes to provide affordable air taxi services to megacities worldwide. Founded in 2011, the company premiered the Volodrone at Agritechnica, the German exhibition show for agricultural mechanisation and technology held in Hanover late last year.

According the company’s CEO, Florian Reuter, Volocopter decided to expand its operations into drone technology after seeing the potential of their technology beyond just passenger transportation.

“So we decided to build a cargo-carrying variant (of the Volocopter) for primarily agricultural and logistical purposes,” Florian said on the sidelines of the Agritechnica. “The team kicked off the project around June 2018, and this is the result of it. We will work with John Deere to demonstrate what the VoloDrone can do as a crop-spraying application.”

Derived from Volocopter’s Electrical Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) air taxis, the VoloDrone looks like a giant steering wheel, or a hula-hoop with an overall diameter of 9.2 meters (30 feet) powered by 18 rotors. It can carry a payload of up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds), and can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes on a single charge of its exchangeable lithium-ion batteries, according to Volocopter. It’s designed to operate fully autonomously along a set path, or be piloted remotely if manual control is needed.

John Deere is equipping the VoloDrone with a sprayer and tank array mounted to its cargo connection points, which will be able to dispense pesticides, liquid fertilizer, anti-frost agents for unseasonable inclement weather and more. At Agritechnica, the VoloDrone was pitched as “a sustainable, precise, and cost-effective alternative to helicopters” for tasks including spraying, sowing seeds, and frost control.

The VoloDrone can be used for different purposes besides crop dusting

For proofing purposes, the drone at the Agritechnica show had a payload of 100kgs, but its CEO said when its finally operational and fully optimised, the VoloDrone can carry loads up to 200kgs. The drone frame is equipped with a flexible standardised payload attachment system. This means that different devices can be mounted on the frame depending on the application.

For crop protection, the drone is equipped with 2 capacity tanks, a pump, and a spray bar. Thanks to the drone’s low flight altitude capability, a very large area coverage of up to 6ha/hr can be achieved and spray management improved. This makes the VoloDrone a sustainable, precise, and cost-effective alternative when compared to helicopters. Due to the system’s high flexibility and GPS control, more selective area-specific treatments are also possible, according to John Deere and Volocopter.

“The challenge now is to prove the reliability of our product; once we have done that, and proved the cost-effectiveness, I can imagine there will be a very high number of applications that can take advantage of the third dimension.” He did add however, that they are looking for application that require a high payload and leave the smaller applications to smaller drones,” Florian said.

He added; “Our next step would be to go out into the field to demonstrate and learn what the VoloDrone can do for farmers all around the world. We also welcome ideas from partners and farmers; they can approach us with their ideas because they know much better about challenges in agriculture, and areas where the drone can provide maximum support. We are absolutely committed to this, and we have already launched a serial production development. As you can see, we already have the drone ready to fly tomorrow. It can do everything the Volocopter does; complete with a whole set of automated features – extremely reliable and redundant flight control, GPS navigation; all those features are already installed. We are really close to launch the VoloDrone onto the market.”

The development of the VoloDrone, which is a demonstrator model, is a first step towards bringing this innovative technology closer to commercial application after full testing in the field.

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