Agricultural technology startup Dragontech is using 3D printing to develop a new accessible drone-based data gathering platform to aid commercial farmers to identify potential problems in their fields.
The company is using MakerBot 3D printers to design and prototype components, such as carbon-fiber brackets and mounts, to attach its systems integrations platform to commercial off-the-shelf drones. Dragontech’s goal is to help commercial farmers get the best out of their data in order to maximize their crop yields and better predict the uncertainties of a changing climate on their fields.
“We want to be able to take pretty much any kind of sensor and integrate it into a drone, and make it all integrated into a single out-of-the-box platform so anyone can use it,” said Mel Wieting, Founder of Dragontech. “There are ways that you can put together solutions now, but there’s a big potential market for a more out-of-box packaged solution that can cater directly to the farmers.”
Aiding agriculture with 3D printing
3D printing has been leveraged to improve processes and sustainability within the agricultural sector in a variety of ways. One notion receiving increasing attention in this sector is that of the circular economy, and the role 3D printing can play in achieving circularity within it.
Projects such as BARBARA have sought to repurpose the waste from agricultural by-products into 3D printable bio-based materials to make prototypes for the construction and automotive sectors. Meanwhile, food-tech firms such as MeaTech are using 3D printing to develop sustainable lab-based alternative meat proteins that eliminate the need for animal slaughter and the environmental impacts that come with mass meat production.
Elsewhere, metal and carbon fiber 3D printer manufacturer Markforged is seeking to set up an Australia-based service dedicated to producing 3D printed food-contact components that will also become available for other Australian food, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors in the future.
Dragontech’s drone-based data platform
Sensor-integrated drones can be used in customized data packages by consultants for large farms to collect data on their fields and crops, however these are generally less accessible to farmers themselves and smaller farms without the necessary resources. These types of packages are valuable in identifying and addressing potential problems regarding fields, crops, and climate uncertainties.
After 15 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) working on technologies to improve efforts to predict and maximize crop yields, Wieting and a partner embarked upon investigating sensors and controllers that could monitor and control large farm-based irrigation systems.
Out of this, Dragontech was born in 2020 with the goal of bringing standardized technologies to the agritech sector to enable easier and more widespread adoption of drone-based data gathering platforms. The firm designs and builds the systems integrations for the off-the-shelf drones at the center of its platform, which involves sensors, cameras and on-board processing units.
To hold and balance its systems and instruments onto the drone, the firm manufactures its own mounts, variations of which it designs and tests using 3D printing. Dragontech has leveraged a METHOD X 3D printer to rapidly produce prototypes of components that they can test in the field.
An example of one of the company’s early builds is a DJI Matrice drone with a suite of advanced sensors and an onboard processing unit mounted using 3D-printed carbon fiber brackets and fixtures.
“I have some experience using 3D printers, but what intrigued me about the METHOD X was the use of carbon fiber material along with the enclosed heated chamber, resulting in the strongest possible parts – which is important when I’m printing to attach $10,000 sensors to a drone,” said Wieting.
According to Wieting, the METHOD X has saved the Dragontech team a lot of time during the prototyping process, however the team is also planning to use the technology in other ways. Once the components have advanced through their initial design and testing phase, Wieting plans to create an agile production line with a digital inventory of parts.
Once the parts are vetted and optimized by an external engineer, the company will create a digital inventory allowing them to print parts on-demand. This will reduce Dragontech’s dependence on outsourcing production or allocating excessive space for physical inventory storage.
Beyond agriculture, Wieting believes that Dragontech’s data gathering platform could be utilized in other industries that require remote monitoring and data collection in vast environments.
“I can start printing right away, and I can still have them way faster than if I was using a supplier to get me the part, so it’s a massive benefit to have the printer,” added Wieting. “We’re starting in agriculture where we see an obvious market need, but there are many other industries and applications that we could open up to in the future.”
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Featured image shows Dragontech is using MakerBot 3D printers to design and prototype components to mount its systems integrations onto its drones. Photo via MakerBot.