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Drones fly among tomato plants at first international drone event

"Oh wow, that's amazing! It's still flying," commented Guido de Croon enthusiastically about a drone's flying skills in Tomatoworld's greenhouse in the Netherlands. Earlier this week, an international drone event - part of a large multi-day International Micro Air Vehicle Conference - was held there.

Guido de Croon reporting on the drone competition

Avoiding obstacles
Guido is a Bio-inspired Micro Air Vehicles professor at TU Delft. But on Wednesday, he wore a different hat. That of commentator at the tomato greenhouse where teams from all over the world had brought their drones to the event. Much of the skill at this, the already 13th conference, revolves around obstacle avoidance. Flying among the tomato plants proved to be an enjoyable but difficult challenge. Especially considering it all started 20 years ago when all a drone did was successfully take off and land.

The Jury: Guido de Croon, Salua Hamaza, Ab van Marrewijk, and Liselotte de Vries

Not too heavy but jam-packed with technology
During the competition, the jury looked at how safe a drone was, its weight (lighter is better), how many subsequent rows the drone could navigate, and how autonomously it could fly. The less outside guidance, the better. The challenge is to add technology to the device without making it too heavy.

Drone demonstrations
The event was a mix of presentations and drone demonstrations, including the competition, which were done outside too. The teams entered the greenhouse with their drones for the competition. The guests (many drone experts but certainly also interested horticulture specialists who wanted to see how far these little flying devices have progressed) followed the drones' flights on video.

Flapper Drones' demonstration included flights in the greenhouse

Ten teams, including international student teams and a few drone companies, stood at the ready to take flight. But as the competition day approached, there were some drop-outs. That was because of COVID-19 issues, a drone lost in the luggage chaos at the airport, and one not being up for the challenge, after all, after a test flight through the greenhouse.

From the top left, clockwise: Team Corvus from the Netherlands, Team Selff from Israël, Team SkyRats from Brazilië, and Team Ciiba from Thailand

Development leap
So, four teams ended up conducting flights throughout the day on Wednesday. That included the Dutch Team Corvus, already well-known in horticulture circles. The designers were well pleased when their sleekly designed orange drone completed several rows in a row. The Dutch company already performs commercial greenhouse flights.

But flying among tomato plants is a significant step forward. This development was not planned until later, but this competition gave them a reason to bring its research and development forward. This day's greenhouse flying data will give the specialists what they need to take the next step.

The Corvus drone takes on the narrow paths

At the end of the day, which more than 3,000 people followed via a livestream, Corvus was declared the winner. Isreal's Sellf and Thailand's Ciiba took second and third place. Both these teams are made up of undergraduate and/or graduate students.

Drones had taken to the air on Tuesday as well when it was the even smaller devices' turn than those that flew along the roughly one-meter wide tomato plant paths. And yesterday, they took to the air at Valkenburg Airport near Leiden to show how drones can deliver packages over longer distances.

You can see a photo report of Wednesday here compiled by Eddy Huijsmans. And start here to learn more about drones and the event, the results of which have been shared, as open-source, for years.


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