How a 3-Pound Airplane Just Boosted Farm Production

Until recently, if you were a farmer who wanted to know how productive your land was, you might use a sophisticated mix of GPS technology and sensors mounted on your combine to measure the grain coming off your field in the fall. With this approach, you could tell within a few feet just where the soil is most fertile, where the seeder failed, or where you might need some extra amendment. There’s just one flaw in the whole system—you can’t fix anything until next year.

For better results, you need more data, more often—not just at the end of the season. Well, now with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—drones—you can get it.

Robots in the Field

Agriculture has become increasingly high tech over the years, with “precision farming” leading to better yields, less waste, and higher profits. So it comes as no surprise that agriculture has quietly become one of the first industries to make practical use of flying robot vehicles. A group of PTC users built a gas-powered quadcopter that carries 50-pound payloads for the US Department of Agriculture. On the other end of the spectrum is Sentera (previously know as FourthWing Sensors), a Minnesota-based firm that produces an electric vehicle that weighs less than many toy airplanes, but comes packed with sensors and other sophisticated electronics.

Arial Shot

Sentera equipment includes RGB, NDVI and Multi-spectral imaging sensors.

The Vireo is designed as a low-cost tool for farmers who want to assess crop health throughout the growing season. At just 3 pounds, you can launch the device by hand—like a paper airplane. It then flies a pre-programmed route, or you can direct it from a laptop. It has twice the endurance and coverage rate of competing UAVs according to

The sensors inside the aircraft gather high resolution and infrared images as it crisscrosses the land. Once the Vireo completes its flight, all the data arrives wirelessly at Sentera’s parent company for processing and analysis.

“What’s exciting about using small UAVs, is that agricultural producers can now gather data weekly,” says Todd Colten, lead aerospace engineer. “So they can make decisions not just for next year, but for next month.”

Why Sentera?

Engineers at Sentera aren’t the only ones in the emerging field of lightweight precision robot planes, but they are among the most experienced. Core team members all worked previously in aerospace or other military applications for a decade or more. As such, they’re accomplished in engineering, design, manufacturing, and collaboration.


The Vireo UAV was designed and developed with PTC Creo

You can see their experience in the tools they choose. When they decided to form their own company, the team decided to use the software that’s worked well for them since college, PTC Creo. “We thought about switching to another CAD system [Ed-they were previously using Pro/ENGINEER],” says Colten. “But with PTC Creo and the pace of innovation and enhancements we were seeing, plus the price was the same, we decided for PTC.”

Calling the Vireo a “fish with wings,” Colten says his team uses PTC Creo’s out-of-the-box surfacing tools to help create the device’s organic geometries. And with the latest release of the software, he uses the new cross-sectioning tools to better communicate with manufacturers and partners—he simply captures an image of the cross section and puts it into a Microsoft PowerPoint before a discussion.

UAV Diagram

UAV Diagram of Key Components

Mixing Mechanical with Electrical

Despite its small size, the Vireo includes thousands of parts, many of them electronic. Sensors, autopilot, and GPS systems are all highly integrated with the aircraft. As such, Sentera engineers work closely with a team of electrical engineers to bring the aircraft together. Fortunately, PTC Creo easily supports their collaboration—and keeps development on schedule.

“We can give them 3D models in STEP or IGES, and they design the electrical parts right on top of those volumes,” Colten says. “We put it all in PTC Creo and check interferences and alignments. That’s something that in older electrical design tools would have taken weeks. Now it takes hours.”

Two-Day Manufacturing

PTC Creo helps the team when parts go to manufacturing, too. Because Sentera’s products aren’t produced in large numbers, it’s often not cost effective to use traditional manufacturing methods. “We’re in this ‘in between’ quantity,” says Colten, “where we’ll need to make 100 pieces, not enough to use injection molding.”

Nonetheless, the team has developed a manufacturing approach that keeps time and costs down. “The biggest challenge for my team is going from design to manufacturing, making design changes, and rolling those into manufacturing,” says Colten. The team addresses this by designing products that can be manufactured in minutes with CNC or 3D printing. The team sends the 3D models, as PTC Creo, STEP, or STL files, directly to the companies that can provide services. It’s a strategy that’s working; fabrication delivers the small-run parts in just a day or two. Like the agricultural producers who use their products, Sentera knows that to stay competitive a business needs to be flexible, efficient, and at times, ingenious. PTC Creo provides the design technology they’ll need to wherever the wild blue leads them.

[Ed-Better yields, less waste, and higher profits are key goals in agriculture. Explore how another manufacturer, Great Plains, is helping farmers deliver more with less with the help of PTC.]

Images courtesy of the Sentera team.