Spinout takes off

Robotic planes that help farmers monitor animal health, crop conditions and water use are taking off from the University of Nottingham’s newest overseas research centre.

The Geospatial Research Centre has been officially launched at its base in Christchurch, New Zealand, this month. The centre is a joint venture between the Universities of Nottingham and Canterbury, and the Canterbury Development Corporation, and carries out research and consultancy in the fields of positioning and orientation, with particular expertise in sensor integration, image analysis, data visualisation and electronics. It is said to bridge the gap between academia and industry, spinning out a range of new technologies to be used in areas including agriculture and forestry, environmental monitoring and management, transport and health.

Geospatial research covers the gathering and interpretation of geographic information through the use of new technologies such as satellite navigation devices. The unmanned robotic planes currently being developed could potentially be used in a range of applications from farming to search and rescue to atmospheric monitoring.

The New Zealand government has given NZ$2m (€1,068,248), with regional funding providing an extra NZ$900,000 (€480,712). It is thought the centre will be self-supporting by the end of 2009 with funding from industry, project-related research grants, IP licensing and PhD supervision fees.

By being based on New Zealand’s South Island, researchers can take advantage of the huge range of habitats available at close hand.

‘The range of physical environments that are available for research on the South Island within a few hours of Christchurch in terms of oceans, rain forest, glaciers, mountains, cliffs and agriculture of all types, makes it all very exciting,’ said Dr Park, director of the new centre. ‘We can work in partnership with domain specific users to develop technologies for a particular application or market and can then very easily test them in the real world, in realistic conditions.’

The centre is already trailing an unmanned aircraft fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, imaging systems and communications facilities. Technology on board collates and feeds information to a central computer.

‘The idea is to develop a model that would retail for about NZ$10,000 (€5,341) and which would be no more than a couple of metres in size and packed with electronics and sensor devices,’ added Dr Park.

Other research being carried out in the centre includes the development of miniaturised, low cost positioning sensors; exploring how the latest range of Digital Signal Processing hardware can be used for real time image analysis; and the evaluation of new communications and positioning systems that do not require any traditional electronic hardware.