University of Minnesota collaborates to develop UAS software

By Patrick C. Miller | January 14, 2016

A collaboration between the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering and Sentera LLC is good for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) applications in precision agriculture, but bad news for soy bean aphids.

Sentera—a sensor, software and drone company based in Minneapolis—is working with the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Laboratories at the university to develop a high-precision autopilot toolkit for UAS use—now available under an open-source license.

Brian Taylor, director of the University of Minnesota lab, said the project is funded by the state’s legislature through a grant from the MnDRIVE program which addresses issues affecting Minnesota.

“Our lab is working with some entomologists and agriculture economists to look at how to use UAVs in precision agriculture to detect and map soy bean aphids,” he explained. “We’re trying to optimize the whole process as far as developing the sensors, the flight software and data-driven decision tools.”

The project’s goal is to help farmers use drones to fly over a field, identify where soy bean aphids are a problem and spray insecticide to get rid of them. The collaboration has been good for both Sentera and the university.

“We initially didn’t have a lot of experience in the hardware design aspect,” Taylor said. “They brought that experience and we learned a lot from it. It was just a nice way for us to rapidly gain that knowledge.”

In addition, Taylor said the lab and the approximately 25 graduate and undergraduate students who work in it get the benefit of seeing how their software works commercially in the field.

“Sentara now can easily go out and take what we’re developing and apply it commercially,” he explained. “It’s a very nice symbiotic relationship where they’re providing us with interesting research problems and we’re providing them with cutting- edge software that they can use.”

Eric Taipale, Sentera CEO, said the collaboration has been valuable in developing the next generation of capabilities for UAS.

“This project is an excellent example of collaboration between the University of Minnesota and industry,” he said. “From a technical perspective, performance is outstanding.”

Taylor said the university and Sentera have a long history of collaborating on research and technology development.

“Creating a high-quality, open-source autopilot was a natural fit for our organizations,” he said. “It provides a platform for groundbreaking research at the university and other research institutions along with a potentially rapid path to commercial application.”

Taylor’s team and Sentera are also working on a Rapid Autonomy Platform and Testbed Reconfiguration Suite (RAPTRS) sponsored by NASA. The flight control system and hardware will reduce the agency’s UAS research costs by automatically learning to fly any type of unmanned aircraft.

Another NASA-funded project is the Performance Adaptive Aeroelastic Wing (PAAW), The goal is to research and develop a vehicle that is lighter with reduced environmental impact that can morph its wing shape to optimize performance at any given flight condition.


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