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My thrilling encounter with drones at the GFIA Africa conference

November 2015. Durban, South Africa.

January 15, 2016

Written by Ednah Karamagi, BROSDI

Technology in agriculture continues to advance, with farming communities keen to get the best results from their land. One of the latest advancements is Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (SUAVs), also referred to as drones. Wikipedia describes them as aircrafts without a pilot aboard; controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control on the ground or in another vehicle. Although drones have been around for a while, using this technology to improve food production is a recent development.

Ednah at CTAs stamdEdnah Karamagi next to a drone at the CTA exhibition stand, GFIA Africa conference. November, 2015.In December 2015, with sponsorship from Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), I attended the Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture (GFIA) conference in Durban, South Africa. While there – at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA) exhibition stand – I saw a drone for the first time. CTA displayed and explained in detail three different drone types. CTA also provided information about the online discussion group: www.uav4ag.org. The platform brings together agricultural practitioners interested in SUAVs to share experiences in developing SUAV technologies and related software applications; and more importantly, how to use SUAVs to improve crop management, fishing and other resource-based activities. At the GFIA conference, a dedicated session brought together techies, users, different governments and interested parties like myself, to discuss in detail these unmanned aerial vehicles.  

There is a lot to learn about SUAVs. Drones produce high-resolution digital three-dimensional models, useful for realistic visualisations of specific areas, such as agricultural fields and related infrastructure. SUAVs can capture up to 800 high-resolution images in a single flight covering hundreds of hectares. Drones are cheaper than using satellites and provide far greater image resolution, even with cloud cover.

Using these images, a farmer would be able to detect an impending problem in their fields at an early stage. For instance, crop disease or pest outbreaks, poor soils due to inadequate fertiliser application, water availability or even an area that has failed to germinate. Images depict discoloration in affected areas. This allows the farmer to address the problem, thereby increasing yield quality and quantity at the end of the season. Interestingly, some drones come with image processing software that can be used to transform snapshots into one large 'orthomosaic' image. Sensors in a drone can identify crops, varieties grown and the areas they cover with a two-centimetre precision. Drones may also be used for counting livestock or trees, and studying land use, including riverbanks in remote areas.

Image results are immediate and easy to interpret; even to an untrained eye. Farmers do not need to be highly educated to interpret image results and tailored software is available for deeper analysis.

The cost of SUAV technology is rapidly decreasing. Today, the cost of a drone with a high resolution camera is similar to a laptop. Like many other technology devices, SUAVs should be handled carefully.

In some countries, licensing and registration procedures are tedious and require extensive paperwork and skills before license issuance. In addition, without appropriate legislation and control mechanisms, some countries consider drones security hazards.

In summary, I conclude that SUAVs are effective at providing useful pictorial and mapping information in areas that are hard to reach or too vast to cover in a short time. Farmers are able to gather new and different types of data previously unreachable. In turn, farmers can make changes during the same growing season. This consequently has a positive impact on their yields. Last but not least, SUAVs open up opportunities to assess the aftermath of natural disasters and to monitor the use or misuse of resources, including illegal logging.

Stay connected

  • Join the e-discussion around drones for agriculture
  • Are you interested in promoting responsible use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in farming, fisheries, livestock and natural resource management in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries? Join us on Twitter @UAV4Ag 
  • Visit BROSDI's website
  • The forthcoming edition of the ICTUpdate magazine will provide a special dossier on drones for agriculture (to be released in the spring of 2016).