Tuesday 17 October: Introduction to drones and the technology

Tuesday 17 October: Introduction to drones and the technology

Overview for today: 

  1. Recorded presentation "Introduction to drones by Gerard Sylvester from FAO"
  2. Definitions
  3. Type of drones
  4. Equipment or payload

Watch our first recorded presentation by Gerard Sylvester, from the FAO regional office for Asia and the Pacific, entitled, “Introduction to Drones in Agriculture ”. This talk demystifies what drones are and explains its features. The presentation focuses on how drones have been used within the agricultural domain and disaster and risk management.

Gerard Sylvester is Knowledge and Information Management Officer at the FAO regional office for Asia and the Pacific. He is responsible for initiating and managing collaborations with partners around the region to improve sustainable development through the application of modern information and communication technology (ICT). He is also responsible for the establishment of new partnerships, new communities of practice, information assessment, knowledge strategies, identification of good practices and increases their impact. He is a strong promoter of efficient and effective ICT for Development methodologies among member countries in the region. He has worked extensively on ICT related development projects in Asia and Africa and coordinated several publications on the topic of e-agriculture and working closely with ITU on e-agriculture strategies with member countries. Currently, he is working on a publication on the use of drones in agriculture and rural development, that will be available soon. 

Do you have questions for Gerard Sylvester regarding his presentation? You can write them down by commenting on this post. In order to be able to comment you have to be logged in.

In addition to Gerard Sylvester’s presentation we have compiled some key definitions, types of drones and additional links for today, that can be useful for you to learn more about the the technology behind drones.

UAV, RPA or drone? Terminology (Source: ICAO.org)

What is a UAV? And what is the difference with UAS? Is this the same thing as a drone? Lets first start with a few definitions to clarify what is exactly meant with each term that will be used throughout this course. As you will see some of the terms are used interchangeably and depending on which organization the information comes from. In colloquial language most people are used to hear the term drones. This is thee term we are also using for this learning activity.

Let us look at some definitions

  • Aircraft: Any machine that can derive support in the atmosphere from the reactions of the air other than the reactions of the air against the earth’s surface.
  • Unmanned Aircraft (UA) or Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV): An aircraft, which is intended to operate with no pilot on board.
  • A drone is a common name for a UAV. Drone stands for Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): A set of configurable elements consisting of a Unmanned Aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s) or ground control station (may be hand-held), the required command and control links and any other system elements as may be required, at any point during flight operation.
  • Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA): An aircraft where the flying pilot is not on board of the aircraft. This is a subcategory of Unmanned Aircraft
  • Remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS): A set of configurable elements consisting of a remotely-piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s), the required command and control links and any other system elements as may be required, at any point during flight operation.

Just a minute!– It is still not very clear to me what the difference is between a UAV, a RPA and a drone. The website from ICAO tries to give an answer to this question:

What is the difference between UAS and RPAS? Why can’t we just call them all drones?

Unmanned aircraft (UA) are aircraft but they have lots of different styles and capabilities that include RPA, these are sometimes referred to as drones in the common vernacular. Regulators and users need to be able to distinguish between the different categories. Using specific terminology is helpful to distinguish types of aircraft and their capabilities.

ICAO is making a clear distinction between those UA that can be accommodated in airspace by keeping them away from other aircraft and those that can be integrated in airspace alongside manned aircraft (i.e. RPA). RPA will be subject to all the same equipage and certification requirements as manned aircraft operating in the airspace/or conducting procedures; they will have the same separation standards. In other words, RPA act like and are treated like manned aircraft.

UA that cannot meet these requirements will be dealt with separately. They can be accommodated in airspace with appropriate consideration given to the risk they pose to other aircraft, people and property on the ground.


  •        Remote pilot station or ground control station 
  •        Remote pilot
  •        Command and control (C2) link used to pilot UA
  •        UA


  •        Remote pilot station
  •        Remote pilot
  •        Command and control link used to pilot RPA
  •        Any other elements required by type design

Q&A taken from: https://www4.icao.int/uastoolkit/Home/FAQ

Types of drones

There are many different types of drones that can be used in different ways, depending on the equipment that will be associated with the unmanned aircraft.

We can differentiate 3 big categories of drones:

1.    Fix-wing drones                      

“Fixed-wing drones have a two-wing design, and are typically used to cover longer distances and carry heavier loads. Fixed-wing drones are often preferred for larger mapping projects or for projects that require the transportation of cargo over longer distances. They can operate in up to 50 km/hour winds and can typically stay in the air between 30 minutes and several hours, depending on the model. Most fixed wing drones fly on autopilot, following predetermined flight paths that are uploaded ahead of the flight. A pilot on the ground merely monitors the flight progress and makes adjustments when necessary. A major drawback of fixed wing drones is that they usually require a strip of open space for landing and takeoff. Such spaces may be difficult to find in mountainous, densely forested or densely built environments.” (Source: Drones in humanitarian action - http://drones.fsd.ch/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Drones-in-Humanitarian-Action.pdf)   

2.    Multi-rotor drones

“Multi-rotor drones are typically used for shorter flight times and shorter distances to record pictures or to transport light cargo. The most widely used multi-rotor drones have four propellers, which is why they are often called quad-copters. But models with one rotor (helicopter) or with as many as eight rotors (octo-copters) exist as well. Their main advantage is that they take off and land vertically thus do not require much space, and improved controls and software enable automatic stabilization and steering by remote control or autopilot. The tradeoff, however, is that flight times are severely shortened: many small consumer drones have a battery life of only about 10 minutes. Models that can fly longer are significantly more expensive.”

(Source: Drones in humanitarian action - http://drones.fsd.ch/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Drones-in-Humanitarian-Action.pdf )

3.    Hybrid drones

“Hybrid drones are relatively new and are equipped with both wings and rotors. This hybrid configuration allows for vertical take-off and landing, and provides the drones with the ability to fly horizontally like fixed-wing drones. This means that they can cover far longer distances and carry heavier cargo than multirotor drones. These hybrid drones look promising for cargo delivery where the combination of long flight time and vertical take-off and landing are important features.”

(Source: Drones in humanitarian action - http://drones.fsd.ch/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Drones-in-Humanitarian-Action.pdf)

VIDEO: KULEUVEN drone mixes plane and quadcopter technology

KU Leuven researchers have devised a prototype delivery drone that could rival the likes of Amazon Prime Air and Google's Project Wing. VertiKUL 2 combines the ability of quadcopters to take off and land vertically with both the speed of conventional aircraft and their capacity to fly long.


Possible equipment associated with drones also called “payload”:

  1. Sensors for inspection and monitoring: among which there are camera-systems for monitoring of vegetation, video-systems (for recording or real-time) and other types of sensors such as thermal imagers, laser scanners, radar systems etc. There are many uses of sensors in agriculture and we will look at the type of sensors and what they can do later.
  2. Robotics and mechanical tools: such as spraying systems for fertilizers or pesticides, or knives to clip plants in difficult to reach places, etc. The commercialization of robotics and mechanical tools so far has been limited. There are some examples of getting water samples from the middle of a lake (as cheaper alternative and one that is less disturbing for the fauna than a little boat with researchers) and the spraying of crops (with liquid fertilizers or pesticides).
  3. Cargo: for carrying and delivering all kinds of things and even people through the air with a drone as a logistical aid to existing transportation Transporting goods and people has received a lot of attention in the media. For example, Amazon is testing the delivery of packages or the transportation of blood supply to remote areas for emergencies. For agriculture we could think about the delivery of medicine for animals or pieces of machinery to remote areas. The transport of humans would require drones with much capacity but also this is under development.

(Source: Een verkenning naar toepassing van drones in landbouw en natuur, Wageningen University and Research - http://edepot.wur.nl/389633 )

Types of Sensors and how they can be used:

Visual sensors:

  •        used for areal mapping and imaging
  •        photogrammetry and 3D mapping
  •        plant counting
  •        surveillance
  •        emergency response
  •        surveying and land use application

Multi-spectrum sensors:

  •        plant health measurements
  •        water quality assessment
  •        vegetation index
  •        plant counting

  Thermal sensor

  •        heat signature detection
  •        livestock detection
  •        surveillance and security
  •        water temperature detection and water source detection
  •        emergency response

LIDAR sensor

  • Short range, 270 degrees scanning laser rangefinder
  • Useful in 3D digital surface modelling stockpile calculation
  • Surface variation detection and flood mapping
  • Penetrates through vegetation: it can perform plant height measurement by collecting range information from the plant canopy and the ground below (as opposed to the passive optical imagers that provide height data from the canopy


  • plant health measurement
  • water quality assessment
  • vegetation index calculation
  • full spectral sensing
  • spectral research and development
  • mineral and surface composition surveys

Source: Slideshare presentation on Agricultural Drones by Ashish Kumar Yadav (2015) https://fr.slideshare.net/ashishya30/agricultural-drone

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