Peruvians use drones for agriculture, archaeology

Updated 02 October 2013

Peruvians use drones for agriculture, archaeology

Drones are most often associated with assassinations in remote regions of Pakistan and Yemen but in Peru, unmanned aircraft are being used to monitor crops and study ancient ruins.
Forget Reapers and Predators — the drones used here are hand-held contraptions that look like they were assembled in a garage with gear from a hardware store.
They are equipped with a microcomputer, a GPS tracker, a compass, cameras and an altimeter, and can be easily programmed by using Google Maps to fly autonomously and return to base with vital data.
“These aircraft are small in size, are equipped with high-precision video or photo cameras and go virtually unnoticed in the sky,” said Andres Flores, an electrical engineer in charge of the UAV program at Peru’s Catholic University.
Flores heads a multidisciplinary team brainstorming the best ways to use drones for civilian purposes.
“Up to now we have managed to use them for agricultural purposes, where they gather information on the health of the plants, and in archaeology, to better understand the characteristics of each site and their extensions,” Flores said.
One UAV model built by Catholic University engineers is made with light balsa wood and carbon fiber. At a glance the devices look like souped-up hand-held glider.
One limitation is that these drones must fly below the clouds. If not their instruments, especially the cameras, could fail, said Aurelio Rodriguez, who is both an aerial model-maker and archaeologist.
Some of the earliest human settlements in the Americas are found in Peru.
There are thousands of archaeological sites, many unexplored, dotting the Peruvian landscape, most of them pre-dating the Incas, a major civilization which was defeated by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Along the dry coastline, where the main construction material was adobe brick, whole societies flourished.
After centuries of abandon some of these ancient cities have deteriorated to the point that they are hard to distinguish in the sandy, hilly region.
Archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo is using drones to help map the 1,300 year-old Moche civilization around San Idelfonso and San Jose del Moro, two sites on the Peruvian coast north of Lima.
“We can convert the images that the drones provide into topographical and photogrammetry data to build three-dimensional models,” Castillo told AFP.
“By using the pictures taken by drones we can see walls, patios, the fabric of the city.”
Separately, Hildo Loayza, a physicist with the Lima-based International Potato Center, is perfecting ways to apply drone technology to agriculture.
“The drones allow us to resolve problems objectively, while people do it subjectively,” he told AFP.
“In agriculture drones allow us to observe a larger cultivation area and estimate the health of the plants and the growth of the crops. The cameras aboard the drones provide us with 500 pieces of high-technology data, while with the human eye one can barely collect ten,” Loayza said.
Precise, high-quality images allow experts to measure the amount of sunlight the plants are getting, and study plant problems like stress from heat, drought or lack of nutrients, he said.
Other potential civilian drone use, Flores said, includes closely observing areas of natural disasters or studying urban traffic patterns.
In the thick Amazon jungle, where access by ground is often extremely difficult, drones can be used to study wild animals. “Every time an animal goes by, it can snap a picture,” said Flores.
There are no laws in Peru regulating the civilian use of drones, which allows advocates to push for all kinds of projects.
Their use in urban surveillance, however, could be seen as an invasion of privacy.
While experts are still dreaming up new ways to use the aircraft, security officials do use drones for military and police intelligence purposes, especially in Peru’s rugged and remote valleys where coca — the source plant for cocaine — is grown.


SpaceX Crew Dragon docks with International Space Station

Updated 17 November 2020

SpaceX Crew Dragon docks with International Space Station

  • SpaceX briefly transmitted live images from inside the capsule showing the astronauts in their seats
  • SpaceX is scheduled to launch two more crewed flights for NASA in 2021

WASHINGTON: A SpaceX Crew Dragon carrying four astronauts docked with the International Space Station Monday, the first of what NASA hopes will be many routine missions ending US reliance on Russian rockets.
“Dragon SpaceX, soft capture confirmed,” said an announcer as the capsule completed its 27.5-hour journey at 11:01p.m., with the second part of the procedure, “hard capture,” occurring a few minutes later.
The spacecraft, named “Resilience,” docked autonomously with the space station some 400 kilometers above the Midwestern US state of Ohio.
The crew is comprised of three Americans – Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker – and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi.
Earlier, mission commander Hopkins gave pilot Glover his “gold pin,” a NASA tradition when an astronaut first crosses the 100-kilometer Karman line marking the official boundary of space.
Glover is the first Black astronaut to make an extended stay at the ISS, while Noguchi is the first non-American to fly to orbit on a private spaceship.
The crew joins two Russians and one American aboard the station, and will stay for six months.
Along the way, there was a problem with the cabin temperature control system, but it was quickly solved.
SpaceX briefly transmitted live images from inside the capsule showing the astronauts in their seats, something neither the Russians nor the Americans had done before.
US President-elect Joe Biden hailed the launch on Twitter as a “testament to the power of science and what we can accomplish by harnessing our innovation, ingenuity, and determination,” while President Donald Trump called it “great.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the launch with his wife Karen, called it a “new era in human space exploration in America.”
The Crew Dragon capsule earlier this week became the first spacecraft to be certified by NASA since the Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago. Its launch vehicle is a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
At the end of its missions, the Crew Dragon deploys parachutes and then splashes down in water, just as in the Apollo era.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch two more crewed flights for NASA in 2021, including one in the spring, and four cargo refueling missions over the next 15 months.
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shuttering the checkered Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its main objectives of making space travel affordable and safe.
The agency will have spent more than $8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA’s needs in “low Earth orbit” so it is freed up to focus on return missions to the Moon and then on to Mars.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, leapfrogged its much older rival Boeing, whose program floundered after a failed test of its uncrewed Starliner last year.
But SpaceX’s success won’t mean the US will stop hitching rides with Russia altogether, said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. The goal is to have an “exchange of seats” between American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.
Bridenstine also explained it was necessary in case either program was down for a period of time.
The reality, however, is that space ties between the US and Russia – one of the few bright spots in their bilateral relations – have frayed in recent years.
Russia has said it won’t be a partner in the Artemis program to return to the Moon in 2024, claiming the NASA-led mission is too US-centric.
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, has also repeatedly mocked SpaceX’s technology, telling a state news agency he was unimpressed with the Crew Dragon’s “rather rough” water landing and saying his agency was developing a methane rocket that will be reusable 100 times.
But the fact that a national space agency feels moved to compare itself to a company arguably validates NASA’s public-private strategy.
SpaceX’s emergence has also deprived Roscosmos of a valuable income stream.
The cost of round-trips on Russian rockets had been rising and stood at around $85 million per astronaut, according to estimates last year.
Presidential transitions are always a difficult time for NASA, and the ascension of Joe Biden in January is expected to be no different.
The agency has yet to receive from Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed to finalize the Artemis program.
Bridenstine has announced that he will step down, to let the new president set his own goals for space exploration.
So far, Biden has not commented on the 2024 timeline.
Democratic party documents say they support NASA’s Moon and Mars aspirations, but also emphasize elevating the agency’s Earth sciences division to better understand how climate change is affecting our planet.