Last week, Dries Raymaekers wrapped up a seven-day drone seminar in Lima, Peru. Dries works as a one-man team for a small business in Belgium called Usense, teaching unmanned remote sensing workshops around the world. The Belgian inter-university council, VLIR, sponsors Dries’s international workshops, but he’s no ambassador, he says: “I’m just a lucky dude who gets to fly drones in South America.”
He’s much more than that. Over three days at La Molina, Peru’s National Agrarian University, Dries taught farmers and university students to fly a fixed-wing drone, understand the software and sensor technology, and stitch together and interpret 3D maps. They spent the next four days mapping agri-ecosystems high up in the Andes.
In Peru, drones will enable farmers to better evaluate productivity and irrigation, compare soil quality, and determine which crops to plant on which fields. Right now they have satellite imagery, but drones can fly under the clouds that often obstruct satellite views — especially valuable in the rainy season when productivity is high and reliable imagery is more urgent. By the end of the workshop, Dries has given the La Molina students training, their own plane, a remote controller, batteries, and software.
Dries is a proponent of APM because open-source software is free, and the people he works with don’t have a lot of money: In order to learn, first-time flyers have to be able to afford to crash and pick it up again. His workshop attendees also see the potential of being able to build and tune their own drones at a low cost, to use for their own applications. In September Dries will travel to Ethiopia where they’ll use drones to identify and make 3D maps of drainage ditches — where mosquito larvae survive during the dry season — in order to better monitor and control malaria hotspots. And of course, there’s the potential of making money, in topography, mining, and other commercial applications beyond his workshops. These aren’t his intentions, says Dries, “But for them it’s the only sustainable way.” For this they need low-cost, reliable, and adaptable platforms.
And Dries’s free APM autopilot has met those three requirements: In two years of flying his Bixler plane in all kinds of climates, he hasn’t crashed once on an autopilot mission.