The scarecrow robot: a Spanish drone to protect crops

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The scarecrow robot: a Spanish drone to protect crops

Paco Morente developed an innovative drone that can stop crop-eating pests without violence. In so doing, he drew inspiration from nature.
Paco Morente developed an innovative drone that can stop crop-eating pests without violence. In so doing, he drew inspiration from nature.

From Coria del Río, Seville, to the world. Flying. With tons of hard work, Paco Morente developed an innovative drone that can stop crop-eating pests without violence. In so doing, he drew inspiration from nature.

One day, Paco Morente decided he would turn to nature for ingenious problem solving. ‘I thought, “If I can do what nature does, I’ll come up with an economical, sustainable and effective solution, available across the world.”’ Based on this insight, Morente worked hard, diligently and patiently to come up with a biomimetic system that can prevent birds from attacking crops and hatcheries. And how can this be done? Using a drone that carries 70% of recycled materials and recreates the way birds like hawks, sparrowhawks, goshawks or white-tailed eagles fly.

The autopiloted drone can be controlled manually or via a satellite. It behaves as a bird would in its habitat, threatening seagulls, cormorants, herons and sparrows by relying on one of the most powerful emotions: fear. ‘I was studying sustainable fumigation systems when I realised other animals, like birds, can cause equally significant losses. In Africa and South America they can raze huge areas. I went into it to find out that none of the existing systems works, for birds can’t understand their messages. This is because they applied mammal concepts to communicate with animals that aren’t mammals,’ Morente explains.

Steady work

How come this man from Murcia, now living in Coria del Río, Seville, aroused interest from the High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), technology companies or even NASA? ‘I guess being curious and finding solutions to problems are wired into human nature. You know what they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Born in a large family, I used to see how my parents improvised to make ends meet. Innovation is born out of hardship,’ he remarks.

‘I’m not particularly good at anything. No ornithologist. No aerospace engineer. But I’m a hard worker. I build on criticisms and failure, making adjustments, refining or rearranging my contraptions. I never throw anything away. You don’t need a strong academic background to be an inventor. We all come up with great ideas every day – effective solutions to real problems around us. You just have to believe in them, scrutinise them and, if you see they’re really good, go ahead. Even if the world says “No.” You just run the risk and move on, opening up new paths along the way.’

Morente’s career illustrates this. Before his drone could come into being, he knocked the doors of many people, travelled, started over. It was a long process, starting back in 2006. I appreciate simple people’s experience. When a farmer talks about this bird or that, about his efforts to fight the bird off, you have to listen to them. Then you can go home, read all the research about it and find the right technology,’ he explains. This is how he came into contact with the research team led by Jordi Figuerola at the Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), who helped him improve his bird-control drone.

Full ecosystem

Before the biomimetic drone starts operating on a farm, on-site tests have to be performed, checking the menacing species, the number of specimens, their stage in life and the crops at stake, among other aspects. ‘Birds perceive farms as part of a full ecosystem. This understanding is crucial in mission planning, following the evolution of the plague and thinking ahead. No pressure, no violence, observing the rhythm of nature,’ Morente comments. It’s exactly the opposite of what had been done so far: ‘Poisoning, shooting, trapping, firecrackers, carbide cannons, silicone gel… Some of these methods are used to disturb the attackers; others are meant to frighten them. But the birds soon get used to them, for they don’t consider them to be dangerous. And so the plague is still there.’

In Morente’s view, ‘Lethal methods are, of course, barbaric and counterproductive. If you kill a few specimens, the living ones get more food. They grow stronger and breed. It only makes things worse.’

Morente’s drone goes beyond pest control. Its devices can be used for research, counting, and to fight poachers. ‘It can be used wherever birds pose a threat or mean economic loss: airports, football stadiums, silos, historic districts in cities…’ The Coria del Río authorities, who have held relations with Japan for a long time now, are ready to show the gadget to the Japanese authorities to prevent avian flu, whose virus is carried by migratory birds.

Travel companions

Paco is always ready to thank his companions in this adventure. ‘I’ve been so lucky, really,’ he says, mentioning Plácido and Maribel from Cañada de los Pájaros Nature Reserve in La Puebla del Río, Seville: ‘They were always willing to share their infrastructure and their knowledge with me.’ He also remembers Simón Vázquez, from the Andalusian aerospace cluster of Hélice Foundation, Jaime Durán, from the Andalusian Knowledge Agency, the Deputy Vice President for Knowledge Transfer at CSIC, ASAJA-Sevilla, and companies like Frutaria, Frutas Esther and Piscifactoría Tres Mares, which got interested in this sustainable solution to a common problem that could help them increase production.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), wildlife control results in reduced use of pesticides by preventing the expansion of the pathogens birds carry in their feathers, beaks and legs. The ultimate result is healthier supplies.

Future projects

‘And now what?,’ is the most common question Paco Morente is asked these days. ‘Well, there’s a lot to do in agriculture. We’re now ready to patent a new system developed with the people at CSIC. And I’ve got several other projects under way,’ he replies.

As he begins to unveil some of the secrets of his new projects, passion glitters in his eyes: ‘Innovation is a constant challenge. It keeps you alive and on the alert. But you have to be a non-conformist, and there are days when it seems that you’ll never find the solution. You solve one problem and then the next, but the picture is always incomplete.’ And then he turns to Marie Curie for comfort: ‘Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.’