Send In The Drones: Putting Wheels And Wings On The Internet Of Things

Imagine you’re a farmer trying to grow a crop under drought conditions. Up-to-the-minute data on soil moisture can help you to decide where and when to irrigate, which directly affects your crop yield and your bottom line. More sensors would mean more data and a better spatial picture of conditions, but the cost of wired soil sensors would be crippling. Wireless sensors that tap into GSM or some sort of mesh network would be better, but each sensor would still need power, and maintenance costs would quickly mount. But what if you could deploy a vast number of cheap RFID-linked sensors in your fields? And what if an autonomous vehicle could be tasked with the job of polling the sensors and reporting the data? That’s one scenario imagined in a recent scholarly paper about a mobile Internet of Things (PDF link).


In the paper, authors [Jennifer Wang], [Erik Schluntz], [Brian Otis], and [Travis Deyle] put a commercially available quadcopter and RC car to the hack. Both platforms were fitted with telemetry radios, GPS, and an off-the-shelf RFID tag reader and antenna. For their sensor array, they selected passive UHF RFID tags coupled to a number of different sensors, including a resistance sensor used to measure soil moisture. A ground-control system was developed that allowed both the quad and the car to maneuver to waypoints under GPS guidance to poll sensors and report back.

Beyond agriculture, the possibilities for an IoT based on cheap sensors and autonomous vehicles to poll them are limitless. The authors rightly point out the challenges of building out a commercial system based on these principles, but by starting with COTS components and striving to keep installed costs to a minimum, we think they’ve done a great proof of concept here.

17 thoughts on “Send In The Drones: Putting Wheels And Wings On The Internet Of Things

  1. The px4 is a neat bit of tech; but it uses those stupid microJST connectors. I hate them over any other type of connector. Tiny, easy to break, basically unrepinnable, and really hard to insert/remove.

    1. I second this! MicroJST is evil. I usually remove them from my gear if it has them. Crimpers alone are at least $1000! Not a hacker friendly connector to be sure..

      To not be off topic, This is really A win for everybody. The utility of this sort of thing has yet to be fully discovered. Think data bases so full of environmental data that we can make very clear decisions about what really matters, and make the best use of our limited resources… Really cool to see academia exploring stuff that most of us who play with this stuff already understand about it. Maybe more people will start to take notice now…

  2. “the cost of wired soil sensors would be crippling”

    Uhh. No? Could even install wireless sensors. Seems better and easier to measure soil moisture levels directly rather than measure the past effects like this.

  3. A great idea. I’m wondering, though, how would something like this survive the harvesting process? Specifically, an automated harvesting process like a combine? Or is the idea to make the sensors disposable commodities?

    1. Project apollo… Was supposed to be my Hackaday Prize entry, but had to change gears to consulting work. Sadly the food and family thing kinda take precedence… If anybody is interested in helping out, let me know. I want it to see the light of day… I will get back on it as soon as time permits…

    1. It’s an far issue only if you sell the services to multiple farms or the like. If it’s a hobby for your own farm there rules don’t apply.
      Also being a dick and showing it shooting a firearm, most likely not going to go over well.

  4. Would it be possible to use a slightly bigger RC car and mount the soil moisture probe on the car. Then log each reading to a GPS location. This would not get in the way of harvesting.

  5. Why not just glue the sensors to the car, make it run around, and stick them to the soil in order to gather data from various points, to omit the communication and multiple RFID and sensors cost? It also easier, maybe faster, and safer.

  6. It is a very awesome idea…
    but I cannot but think that is the antenna that size would be covered in solar panel you could gather enough energy(even under some plants) to power some LORA module that can push the data all the way to the end of the field where you have some internet gateway or something.

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