Drone technology has come a long way since we started Outfield back in 2016. Back then, Outfield’s first drone was built on my dining room table from parts ordered from eBay. Today, the range, battery life, camera resolution, and obstacle avoidance systems of drones have all been massively improved.

One of the most exciting developments currently happening in the drone space is ‘drones in a box’. These are drones that launch themselves automatically from a base station, carrying out surveys or inspections and then returning to the base when the mission is finished. The base station (or box) downloads the drone’s survey data and charges the batteries, getting the drone ready for the next survey. From the base station, the drone can carry out unlimited and fully automatic surveys, with absolutely no human intervention required.

It’s easy to imagine a drone in a box placed in a farm yard or at the edge of an orchard block, and connected up to Outfield. The base station would be connected to a weather station and would deploy the drone whenever the weather and lighting is suitable for an orchard survey. All the orchards on the farm would then be surveyed automatically through the growing season, perhaps as often as once per week. Survey data would be sent straight to Outfield via ethernet or 5G, with the results then sent to the farmer via the Outfield web app.

So we are really excited about the idea of drones in a box. This technology perfectly complements our orchard crop monitoring systems, making the Outfield platform even more valuable to growers; and this technology is nearly ready to be deployed. In the UK, there are at least two companies with mature drone in box platforms ready for testing – HEROTECH8 based in Cranfield and IDIPLOYER based in Reading. Last year in the US, American Robotics became the first company to receive clearance from the FAA to operate drones in this way without human oversight. And in March, DJI announced the launch of the DJI Dock base station for the new Matrice M30 drone – although at the moment it’s only available in China.

The main obstacles to deploying drones in a box now are regulatory – in many countries drone regulations do not allow drone operations without a human pilot present. Nevertheless, Outfield will be testing drone in a box systems in limited trials in the UK later this year. As soon as airspace regulations allow their deployment, we want to be ready to offer these systems to our users.

One thing that puzzles me though, is why the drone industry has not yet come up with a better name than ‘drones in a box’. A quick Google search will show that this is still the preferred terminology, but it hardly does justice to the ‘coolness’ of the technology. ‘Drone dock’ or ‘drone base station’ are both better names, but I think my personal choice would be ‘drone hive’. After all drones are named for a type of bee – it would make sense to name their ‘house’ the same way.

Drones in a box in an orchard – coming soon!

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