Brazil’s Homemade Drones

Drones from AGX, here represented by the Arara model, are being used by companies like Dow. Courtesy of AGX

How AGX Tecnologia finds success developing and selling drones

SÃO CARLOS, BRAZIL — The jeans-clad engineers pace with youthful eagerness in this bungalow-turned-office in São Carlos, Brazil’s nascent response to Silicon Valley. Ask them which contemporary Brazilian challenges they are working on, and they’ll give a smattering of responses: illegal commercial sand extraction, lost persons at night in the jungle, and armadillo holes rooting up farmer’s crops.
But this group is proposing one surprising solution for them all — their development of increasingly sophisticated drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), replete with the colors of the Brazilian flag and names such as Arara (parrot) and Tiriba (little parrot).
“It ends up demystifying this equipment, to show that it’s not only restricted for military use but also something of daily use,” says AGX Tecnologia consultant Jen John Lee in the basement of these homey headquarters. Going against the trend of Latin American nations purchasing Isreali-made drones for drug-war policing and border patrolling, AGX uses only Brazilian technology developed at the nearby University of São Paulo and sees its target market in the nation’s growing agricultural industry and state “environmental police” forces tasked with monitoring illegal extraction of natural resources.
Brazil’s Federal Police is indeed implementing a fleet of Israeli-made UAVs along its porous frontier to monitor drug trafficking. But the São Paulo Environmental Police has other objectives. They will be the first team in the state to regularly employ unarmed UAVs to monitor threats in rural areas, such as deforestation and illegal fishing.
For example, AGX used a series of temporal images to record illegal extraction of sand from a bed in the river Mogi-Guaçu for the police, says Bianca Kancelkis, the company’s director for environmental projects. A piloted plane would both be more expensive because of skilled labor and need to have a take-off and landing strip often not found near the remote areas where environmental crimes occur. (AGX’s newest UAV has a wingspan of three meters and is launched simply by throwing it.)
“Using this evaluation that was made by us, the police … found the people who were doing this illegal activity,” Kancelkis adds.
But AGX, which began running successful unpiloted flights in 2005, has its base in Brazil’s growing agro-businesses and extraction industries. Its clients now include Dow Agrosciences and Fundecitrus, a non-profit industry body that promotes healthy and environmentally friendly citrus crops in São Paulo. A UAV’s ability to fly lower than a pilot would be comfortable doing, and for hours in controlled patterns that would tire a human, gives farmers economical options to map their fields, Lee says. It also avoids the cloud cover that blocks satellite images. The basic AGX drone system — including training and intelligence programming, which could, for example, count the number of oranges expected in a citrus crop — costs 55,000 reais (about US$35,000).
“There’s a series of advantages for being a national [all-Brazilian] business,” Lee says. “One of them certainly is the dominion of the technology. This allows us to not be dependent, technologically speaking. And another advantage of being 100 percent national is, given that we don’t have to import the technology, I end up having a competitive product, economically speaking. It’s cheap.”
Onofre Trindade Jr. has spearheaded the Brazilian development of drones for more than a decade with the University of São Paulo. The professor of mathematics and computation says he has no attraction to the defense industry. “If there is a market in Brazil, it is the civil,” he says.
He adds as an example that the lethal floods in hillside shantytowns that have become a yearly pattern in Brazil — January mudslides in Rio de Janeiro were the deadliest on record and took more than 900 lives — could be better predicted by drone technology than by manned flights in which pilots would be wary of flying in turbulent weather.
“If you lose the equipment, you lose the equipment. But if you fulfill the mission, how many lives could have been saved in this case?” Trindade says.

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