Traditionally in South Africa, farming boards such as those in the sugar, timber or maize sectors would supply annual manned surveys of large tracts of land. These would be made available to farmers as paper copies. These very large scale ortho-photos had basic contours drawn over them at 5m vertical intervals or greater. These surveys come at great expense and take a long time to issue to the end user.
As times have changed, so have economies, and such surveys are often not performed these days. Farmers are increasingly using Google Earth for their planning work as a data source. This comes at a risk since satellite imagery is often not ortho-rectified very accurately and can lead to major inconsistencies. The vertical element is often very coarse and may skip entire valleys via interpolation. Acquisition in rural areas (especially in Africa) is typically years apart, meaning farmers may not necessarily have access to the latest imagery for an area. Thermal, multispectral and high resolution orthophoto/contour surveys from manned aircraft are now being used on a private basis. Since the most expensive part of the operation comes from the site establishment, many farmers join together, sharing the costs. But this may still be as much as R90 000 for 500 hectares.
Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) have challenged the traditional manned aviation sector, specifically for smaller to medium growers. It is typically not feasible to survey over 7500 hectares with an UAS due to its slow flying times and operational altitudes. For those smaller areas, UAS can and does carry the very same sensors as its full scale counterparts, with much lower deployment costs and turnaround times. They can be transported to reach very remote and difficult places easily and do not require prepared surfaces for take-off or landing.
Data generated from UAS can be viewed in the very same fashion as historically produced data. GIS maps can be generated or interrogated via GIS software both online and offline or via hard-copies. Tools such as line of sight or profiling are easily available to assist with planning irrigation design or water attenuation areas. Multispectral imaging can assist with spot checks of plant health and offer possible reasons for the lack of growth. Even monitoring of livestock and fencing is now possible for the modest of budgets. High resolution ortho-photos now allow for individual plants to be identified, which in term can be automatically counted to assist with densification and yield predictions.
Despite the agronomic industries' benefit from UAS, South Africa has arguably the most restrictive regulations in the world for commercial use. This heavy-handed approach has both forced UAS companies to either operate illegally locally, out of the country to stay in business, or close up shop entirely. The regulations recognize that using UAS as a tool for agriculture means that they are being used commercially and should be governed in the same manner as commercial manned aircraft. This requires a number of steps to comply with:
- Remote pilots license (RPL)
- Register aircraft
- Air service license (ASL) from Department of Transport
- Remote operators certificate (ROC) from South African Civil Aviation Authority
The above is only briefly mentioned and contains a number of sub steps. The regulations are not possible to comply with as a single business owner and require a large number of positions to be filled such as Quality Assurance Manager, Flight Operations Manager, Safety Officer, Security Officer, etc. The total cost to comply with the regulations runs over R500 000 (Euro 32,600) and takes over 2 years to complete. Often, some sections such as the ASLs will expire and require renewal before the final ROC is issued.
Since the regulations were published in 2014, only 14 companies may legally operate with a back log of over 400 applications. Of those 14 legal companies, it is questionable whether any of them even can undertake the specialised requirements that are involved in agricultural work. Agricultural work often involves flying long distances away from the operator, meaning that special dispensation must be made to overcome the legal maximum range of 500m from the operator. This means that the application is challenged even more as it is up to the company to prove to the authorities that it can perform such work in a safe manner and have manuals to ensure it.
It is unlikely that a small to medium scale farmer would even bother to undergo such an expensive and arduous process. They would be correct in trying to enlist the services of a professional company that specialises in such, but few, if any exist due to the current regulations and will continue at the current rate of ROC approval.
It has been suggested that the South African Civil Aviation Authority does not have the capacity to fully implement and regulate all proposed UAS operations. This can only become worse as the number of registered UAS (over 500) and personnel (over 400 pilots) is ever increasing, putting more pressure on the system to approve such companies. Some feel that it would be best to do away with the ASL, as it would assist in speeding up and simplifying the process. Such has been put into plan in other countries with great success.
Director / Flight Ops (RPL)
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Drones 4 Agriculture