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Drones the game changer in precision agriculture


July 25, 2018, Nairobi. Could drones be the future of African agriculture? Perhaps this is a question that is asked by the few drone and techno-savvy people in the continent who are conversant with the emerging technology. To scores though the how drones can be used in agriculture is an area they are yet to be introduced to.

For starters the word “drone” originates form the military but it’s now used to describe civilian technologies, in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the European Union they are referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as part of a broader category of unmanned aircraft that can be programmed to fly autonomously.

The official terminology in civil aviation laws is “remotely piloted aircraft systems” (RPAS). While some regulators such as the US Federation Aviation Administration (FAA) will call it the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

While many grapple with what drones can do, other progressive countries have adopted the technology for precision agriculture with impressive results, but what exactly can a drone do in the growth of the agricultural sector in Africa?

On the most basic level, drones can give farmers a big picture view of their crops, allowing them to detect subtle changes that cannot be readily indentified by crop scouts or extension workers on the ground level. Drones when equipped with special sensors can inexpensively collect multispectral Neutral Density Vegetation Index (NDVI) and infrared (IR) images, allowing farmers to view crop changes that are otherwise invisible to the human eye.

Farmers without doubt have always needed accurate, precise and up-to date information on basic requirements like plant health, the environmental condition of the land to ascertain the elevation and topography among others. Agricultural aircraft have been in use since 1920s, while advent of satellites much later would give agriculture experts an opportunity to assess crop health from the skies.

“The problem with satellites is they are located 20,000km away from the earth and they carry carrier signals with super imposed code, by the time they reach to us they could be exhausted” says Walter Volkman the president of Micro Aerial Projects L.L.C in the USA.

While UAVs are unlikely to entirely replace manned aircraft or the satellites, they have a number of advantages; for instance the technology is capable of collecting very high resolution imagery below the cloud level with much better detail than the satellite images usually available to developing countries analysts.

Drones can be used in mapping and surveying in which through GIS they can give farm boundary delineations, crop area calculations, elaboration of digital elevation models. The other agricultural component that drones can be of great use is in coming up with a crop inventory which gives tree crop count and yield estimations through biomass indexing.

The drone technology can further be utilized in crop scouting like identification of specific crop stress, assessment of biomass development, the technology is also useful for insurance purposes to assess crop damage and critically for crop management advisory where a farmer gets up to date information of fertilization of his crop.

“With the Nitrogen Nutrition Index (NNI),  drones can solve the way fertilizers are applied because you can be able to give both exact timings and quantity of fertilizer needed per crop because like in sugar beet, if you give them too much nitrogen you lose the quality.

And most importantly most farmers do not know at what point they can the fertilization for optimum results” says Hamza Rkha Chaham a drone software processing consultant.

The technology through adoption of both the vertical and oblique photography can be used for infrastructure development in inspection of buildings that are coming up, the standard of a road, a railway line or even keep real time surveillance of electricity posts and connections.

The technology can also assist farmers in ascertaining their credit-worthiness via the integration of farmer profiles with high resolution images, crop diagnostics, and accurate and up-to-date geo-referenced data sets.

In a recent case study in Tanzania, a team of researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP) used a UAV mounted remote sensing technology to obtain data on sweet potato varieties and through spectral signature the researchers were able to indentify from the air whether a crop is sweet potato, cassava or something else and were also able to determine what variety the crop is.

The spectral signature was further able to reveal whether individual plants are water stressed, nutritionally deficient or under attack by insects or viruses. Such changes can be detected in the aerial multispectral images before they can be seen by the human eye.

According to Everina Lukonge, a plant breeder when statistics are not known, you cannot estimate production heaping praise on the drone technology saying that if there is UAV gathered data, it means its easier to plan

“You can estimate the food, may be next season there is hunger or maybe there will be a bumper crop, so you can look for a market. It can help in planning and budget allocation” She said.

The drone technology is now available for use on the continent with a few companies having gone through the training on the use of the UAVs equipped with the right multispectral sensors to acquire relevant data. Kenya has three companies and they are rolling out the technology to all the farms that would be interested in precision agriculture from the skies.

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