Seven Secrets of Successful Innovation
I have come to Holland to visit a fledgling start-up, Applied Drone Innovations (ADI), and to see first hand the practical work involved in the application of drones to the environmental monitoring of greenhouses. I’m curious to learn about the challenges they have overcome and to see what lessons can be applied to innovation more generally. But first, some context …
The Dutch Golden Age of the Seventeenth Century was one of the greatest periods of innovation in history. Throughout the 1600’s the Dutch led the world militarily and in the arts, science and commerce. They gave us the world’s first multi-national corporation (the Dutch East India Company) and the first stock exchange; Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock; Anton van Leeuwenhoek laid the foundations of microbiology; and Descartes did his most important work here at this time.
In the market square in Delft (where ADI are based) there is a statue of Hugo Grotius, the Dutch legal scholar and philosopher who established the principles of international law. Delft was also home to the artist Johannes Vermeer, whose innovative use of optics and expensive pigments resulted in amazingly photo-realistic art.
Three hundred years later, the Netherlands is still a hotbed of innovation and leads the world in one very important industry …
The Netherlands has more than 25,000 acres of greenhouses producing more than €7.5bn worth of vegetables, fruit and plants each year, 80% of which is exported (including more than 5 billion kilos of vegetables). The Dutch are world leaders in horticultural innovation and invest millions of euros every year in developing new, ecologically beneficial techniques.
One key challenge is monitoring the environment within the greenhouses. To understand the enormity of this task you first have to recalibrate what is meant by the term greenhouse. These gigantic structures extend as far as the eye can see and it is hard to comprehend their true scale.
A key challenge in these indoor tracts is the monitoring of the many important environmental factors that affect plant growth and health, including temperature, humidity, luminosity, carbon-dioxide levels, nitrogen levels, etc. While these factors can be monitored at various points throughout the greenhouses, using fixed sensors, it would be great if there was a way to monitor them continuously over the entire plant-stock.
Enter the team from ADI. Their innovative solution to the environmental monitoring challenge is to mount the sensors on a quadcopter drone. This may seem like an obvious solution but it is one which throws up many problems. The way the ADI team have approached these challenges provides an interesting insight into the process of practical innovation and demonstrates what I believe are some of the pre-requisites for successful innovation:
Achieving accurate, autonomous indoor flight
In order to be a useable and scalable solution, the drone must be capable of flying a regular, pre-programmed mission sufficiently accurately and reliably to avoid hitting the structure of the greenhouse, the staff or equipment or, of course, the plants themselves.
This is not as straightforward as it might sound. The usual methods of controlling quadcopter drone flight – barometric altitude, accelerometers and GPS location – are all compromised by the greenhouse environment which, with its metal super-structure also gives rise to significant signal loss.
The ADI team have systematically worked through and solved each of these issues. It has taken several months of iterative experimentation, trial and error, to find workable, practical solutions to the accurate, autonomous, indoor flight problem, involving some clever use of multiple GPS systems and differential GPS receivers.
2. TEAM WORK
Bringing together the necessary disciplines
Every member of the ADI team is an aeronautical engineer by training, but they each bring a different mix of skills to the project, including project management, negotiation, mathematics, programming, scientific method, practical engineering, fabrication and construction, research, flight experience etc.
A key part of their success on this project has been their ability to assign tasks appropriately and support each other when problems arise. They are highly attuned to the fact that they are continually learning, individually and collectively, as the work proceeds.
When the solution to a problem (e.g. data-logging response times) requires a technique with which they are not familiar (in this case, multithreaded programming) they support each other in acquiring the necessary skills and are tolerant of the mistakes they each make as they learn.
I witnessed this esprit de corps first hand when a recalibration of the flight control system resulted in the drone drifting and the team worked quickly and effectively to correct and retest the calibration (a case of two steps forward, one step back). The recalibration and (re)test flight were successful and there was a palpable sense of achievement at a problem overcome.
Achieving useable flight endurance
The bespoke environmental monitoring equipment (of which more in a moment) represents quite a payload and the initial flight time achieved by the ADI drone was less than 10 minutes; too little to be useful. The minimum useful endurance is about 20 minutes and 30 minutes or more would be better.
To solve this problem the ADI team ditched the off-the-shelf quadcopter they had been using and set about building an entirely custom-built drone, optimised for this application, using an extremely light weight skeleton.
To optimise the lift to weight ratio the team sourced some extremely small, extremely powerful, high-torque motors and fitted custom-made propellers, larger and with a greater pitch-angle than usual. These custom propellers are highly innovative and a key part of the solution because they not only generate more lift, they also produce less downwash, which is important to avoid damaging the plants.
Developing the environmental telemetry
The critical element of the drone is obviously the environmental telemetry package which senses and collects the data on each of the environmental factors.
The ADI team recognised early-on that this was an area where they lacked the necessary skills and experience, so they partnered with another company, Avionics Control Systems, to develop the ECOntroller unit. This custom device measures temperature, humidity, pressure, luminosity and carbon-dioxide levels and provides time and geo-tagging of each data point.
Avionics Control Systems also provided the mission-planning software to enable the pre-programming of the environmental monitoring sorties.
I believe this willingness to recognise when external skills and experience are needed and seek out collaboration partners when necessary is a hallmark of the successful innovator.
5. MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT MINDSET
Putting multi-spectral analysis on the backburner
The team’s initial ideas for environmental analysis included the use of a multi-spectral camera to measure plant vitality (using techniques pioneered by NASA) and, while this is still a potential area of development, the team were quick to recognise the challenges and limitations of applying this science to the practical engineering of their solution.
Rather than setting out to develop a drone capable on day one of measuring everything there is to be measured, the team focused on the key factors of temperature and humidity as the minimum viable product (MVP), subsequently adding luminosity and carbon-dioxide levels as these became available on the ECOntroller device.
The ADI team have not lost sight of their bigger goals and I listened with interest to an impassioned discussion of how best to detect dry mould spores. But they recognise the importance of getting their MVP operational, which brings me to my final observation: a focus on results.
6. FOCUS ON RESULTS
Providing the greenhouse managers with actionable data
None of this is of any use to anyone unless it results in actual, usable data being collected and provided to the greenhouse managers. So the team have prioritised this in the development program.
Ultimately, the accurate, autonomous indoor flight problem needs to be fully solved before the quadcopter environmental monitoring solution is fully usable and scalable.
However, the development of the environmental telemetry and the logging and reporting of the data is an area of research and development in itself and can be progressed using manually operated flight. Because this workstream will, hopefully, deliver useful data very quickly, the team have prioritised this over perfecting autonomous flight.
7. BE DOING SOMETHING WORTHWHILE
In these three short days in Delft I saw this amazing team of engineers working together effectively and creatively on an innovative solution which has captured the imagination of those around them (including the management of the greenhouse where they are developing and testing their system).
I’m sure it’s relevant that the end result of all this work will be of benefit to us all in terms of improved yields from the horticultural heart of Europe. So perhaps there is a seventh factor: to be doing something worthwhile in the first place. In which case here is my list of pre-requisites for successful innovation based on what I saw here in Delft:
5. MVP Mindset
6. Focus on Results
7. Be doing something worthwhile !
Andrew Simmonds is Consulting Director at Clustre – The Innovation Brokers www.clustre.net