Coconut killer no match for innovative Thai students

Thai students could save the livelihoods of thousands of coconut farmers when a modified drone they developed that kills coconut eating insects high in the trees begins commercial manufacture later this year, in another example of how Thailand 4.0 is driving the Kingdom towards a more advanced economy and society.

The drone was developed by seniors studying robot engineering at the King Mongkut University of Technology in Thonburi, the premier technical university in Thailand. It can be directed to fly high among the coconut trees and spray insecticide to wipe out insects that destroy the crop that provides a living for coconut farmers. Thailand is one of the world’s largest exporters of coconuts.

“Most people use drones for emergency or medical reasons. Using drones for agricultural purposes has been overlooked,” said Kridtat Satharanond, a project coordinator who is helping to bring the invention to commercial production.

Dubbed “Coconut Garden Care,” the invention has won numerous awards including an award for excellence from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Startup 2017 event, held by the National Innovation Agency (NIA) and the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), state-owned organizations charged with supporting innovation in Thailand.

Supporting innovation and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education are part and parcel of Thailand 4.0, the 20-year national strategy to transform Thailand’s economy and society into ones reliant on creativity, research and innovation, and advanced and green technologies. The strategy is designed to keep Thailand competitive decades into the future.

Industries such as aerospace and aviation are often associated with advanced development, but Thailand 4.0 is broad-based and also intended to raise the technological level of agriculture and food production, which are Thai national and economic strengths. The Kingdom is the only net food exporter in Asia, and a global leader in the export of many commodities such as rice, sugar and coconuts, along with processed foods.

Coconut farmers have been intermittently plagued by infestations of black-headed caterpillars, among other pests. The worms destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of coconut trees in one province alone in 2008.

The team of students at King Mongkut University of Technology took a commercially available drone and modified it with sensors to detect the presence of the pests, and added equipment that allows them to target specific areas and spray them with pesticides, either natural or man-made.

Because of the sensors and controls, the drones can avoid spraying areas of the trees unaffected by the caterpillars.

Weerachat Kamkun, one of the team members, said the height of the trees had posed major problems for farmers, as they had to spend time and energy climbing and spraying them with pesticide.

“A man can spend all day spraying [a few acres] of coconut farmland, while using the drone will only take him three minutes,” Weerachat said.