The use of drones for monitoring rice crops at CIAT's headquarters in Colombia

A smart farming approach to agriculture

Technical scientific article

The use of drones for monitoring rice crops at CIAT's headquarters in Colombia

© © Neil Palmer / CIAT

by Wendy Levy

Digitalisation

Precision agriculture promises better returns to investment and improved livelihoods for farmers around the world. One of the biggest changes in agriculture in our lifetimes, it is spreading to developing countries, where smart farming technologies, including data collected from satellites and drones, are set to fine tune the way farmers grow their crops.

For centuries, farmers have planted and harvested according to ancient seasonal patterns, using traditional knowledge to warn of droughts and floods that could threaten crops and livelihoods. Now, farmers are taking a giant step into the future with precision agriculture. Using smart technology, today’s farmers can manage their farm from a laptop to remotely control tractors installed with GPS and instruct distant crop watering systems to turn on and off. Sensors can be placed in fields to measure soil and air temperature and humidity, and drones and satellites used to collect and analyse data to help inform how farmers fertilise and tend their crops. The new methods augment local knowledge rather than replace it, providing cost-effective and highly accurate ways to predict and protect the growth of agricultural crops.

Using real-time information collected by control centres to decide when to plant, fertilise and harvest, farmers in developed countries are harnessing technology to look at data on weather, soil and air quality and crop progress. Equipment and labour costs and availability are analysed to ensure that the right number of people and machines are available at the right time. There has also been a rapid increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, but the technology also promises change for agriculture in ACP nations, as drones provide valuable and highly precise data that can save farmers time as well as money. Other smart technologies are spreading to developing countries where the benefits of precision agriculture could be a boon to farmers struggling with the dual vagaries of weather and markets.

The use of drones for monitoring rice crops at CIAT's headquarters in Colombia

The use of drones for monitoring rice crops at CIAT's headquarters in Colombia

© Neil Palmer / CIAT

Precision agriculture provides the tools and data for deep analysis of farming practices on individual farms and in regions and countries. To analyse a farm, information about the soil and water and land features allows farmers and researchers to look at variations across an area. This information helps producers understand their soil and its reactions, so they can make smarter decisions about how to farm and what inputs are most appropriate for their soil and crop, boosting crop productivity. However, precision agriculture definitions vary. While some use it only when referring to production, others maintain it is more about more holistic smart farming solutions, including ICTs such as sensors and drones.

Sensors

Smart farming makes use of a range of new technology and sensors that are key to precise data collection. Sensors can be small enough to hold in your hand, but they make a big difference for farmers. High-quality optical sensors can instantly measure how well your plants are growing and information can be sent to farm control centres, including details of fertiliser requirements and pest control. Rolf Sommer, soils Africa program leader with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), says that smart farming and new technologies are bringing plenty of benefits to African nations. “Sensors [are] informing farmers real-time about crop requirements – water, nutrients, not only in general but spatially explicit and high resolution.”

Sensors can be as simple as a hand-held smartphone that a farmer uses to photograph an unhealthy plant, and then receive feedback online about what is wrong and how to treat it and whether it is worth it. However, a typical farming sensor is a device ‘planted’ in a field or attached to a drone that provides a range of data and allows farmers rapid access to specific information to enable smarter, more cost-effective farming, using WiFi, mobile phone or Bluetooth connectivity. Sensors enable crop yield projections using actual plant status and weather forecasting information.

Using drones for precision farming

Drones are capturing the imagination of modern farmers. Gaze up into the sky in farming areas of Europe and the US, and you just might see a drone flying overhead, collecting data for use by researchers and farmers. Ideally, agronomists and researchers want drones to collect data several times in a season to ensure they make well-informed decisions. Reliable data will comprise a wide range of indicators, including biomass, chlorophyll rate, leaf area index, emergence rate, water stress, missing plants, height or flowering. Drones also look at normalised difference vegetation index, which is a mapping method that identifies whether or not an area contains live green vegetation. Drone surveillance can also provide early warning of crop stress and crop health issues, providing images that enable precise and reliable statistics, a boon for evaluating field trials.

However, while drone technology has caught on as a crop management tool in technology-rich parts of the world, for farmers in many African nations, the drone is still something ‘out-of-this world’. Keen to see farmers everywhere enjoying the benefits of drones, CTA is working to establish drone operators in Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda. "An important part of our work focuses on innovative ICTs,” says Giacomo Rambaldi, CTA Senior Programme Coordinator for Information and Communication Technologies. He believes that there is huge potential for drones in African agriculture and that youths could benefit by setting up enterprises to serve the farming community.

CTA has partnered with the French start-up company Airinov, which is providing remote-sensed data interpretation services. Their technology has been showcased in Ghana, allowing a range of stakeholders to meet and discuss opportunities. Airinov has been supported by CTA to train seven African entrepreneurs. In March 2017, the group visited Airinov’s offices in Paris for a week-long training. Airinov is a thriving business, with 40 staff and a turnover in 2015 of €2.5 million. Their training ensured that the visiting team acquired the skills and experience to lead the way in using drones for precision farming back in their home countries. "They are now able to appropriate our technology and then deploy tailored services at home," explains Hamza Rkha Chaham, in charge of international affairs at Airinov. Each of them acquired a four-rotor drone, a multispectral sensor and additional equipment for €5,000, 60% of which is financed by CTA. They will then be followed for 1 year by Airinov. The group has been trained in areas such as data-processing and business development.

Frederick Mbuya, founder of Uhurulabs in Tanzania, says that farmers needed to see drones in action to understand the possibilities. “The critical response from farmers when you mention drones is that it is nothing for us, how could that possibly help us in our business,” says Mbuya. “But the great thing about flying a drone with farmers is that they immediately start to say ‘I could use it for this, I could use it for that’.” Getting a 50 or 100 m aerial view of their farm enlightens the farmer in things as trivial as fence and border inspection.”

Sensors carried by drones can detect weeds, forecast yields, measure lack of or excess water, pest infestations and lack of nutrients. Farmers inspect the drone images of their crops, discuss interpretation with technical staff and decide when and where to apply fertilisers and other inputs. The data is comprehensive, accurate and provided in real-time; it can also be used to determine crop damage for insurance purposes. Farmers will still want to check the data against the situation on the ground, but drone images can direct them to their target area.

On a pineapple farm in Ghana, Joshua Ayinbora, chief executive of GROITAL Farms, became interested in the possibilities of using drones for his farm after CTA organised a demonstration on his farm. He checked out the technology on YouTube and contacted a friend in the construction business, who agreed to fly his drone over his plots, leading to the discovery of a fungal attack in some parts of the crop. “When we are looking at the field laterally, it is difficult to see the various shades of green in the pineapples,” explains Ayinbora. “After we analysed the images, we realised some of the fields were dark green, whereas others were light green.” The team from GROITAL inspected the light green areas and discovered the problem. “And that helped us save a lot of money,” he states.

Keeping the skies open

Drones took to the air in a legal vacuum, flying into tightly-regulated airspace that was not fully prepared for the arrival of UAVs. To help address this, CTA has been working on drones for nearly 2 years, bringing together more than 500 members from 82 countries into a community of practice. Recognising the need for clarity, CTA studied existing policies and regulations, producing a comprehensive document on governance (see Spore 184 Drone Regulation: A Guide to the Laws Governing UAVs). In addition, an online database, with summaries of national drone laws is regularly updated in line with any changes to regulations.

South Africa was the first African nation to regulate the use of drones, targeting topographical studies, mining and anti-poaching activities. Over time, private firms began to offer services to farmers that were based on data collected by drones. Other African countries that have regulated drone use include Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Rwanda.

Using cooperatives to afford the new technology

Whilst drones, sensors and other precision agriculture tools may be the way ahead for modern farmers, much of this new technology is still out of the reach of smallholders in developing countries. To be cost-efficient, drones need to work with agribusiness or small farmer cooperatives owning 3,000 to 4,000 ha of land. New generation cooperatives have an important role to play in the adoption of precision agriculture techniques, as they can be used to break down financial barriers experienced by rural smallholders. “Enterprises are usually very small, while upfront investments are high; [there is a] lack of computer knowledge,” says Sommer. Cooperatives can provide the financial power required to invest in smart farming technology, unlocking the benefits of new technologies and smart farming for all (see Spore online interview, Theo de Jager: Farmers Need to Organise).

Airinov also sees the benefits of having farmers grouping together to work with drones, as the technology may be beyond the reach of a single farmer. “The main objective of that is to make it affordable for the farmer,” says Chaham. “You won’t be moving to the field to fly 1 ha, you would be moving to fly 20, 30, 50 ha. And then you can make economies of scale and make the services useful for them,” he explains.

Data collection on a big scale

With African farmers starting to collect a range of data about their work, there are new possibilities for data coordination and analysis on a wide scale. The CGIAR is working on a big data coordination project that will see farmers monitoring their farms and providing scientists with data on rainfall, fertiliser use, crop varieties and yields. Old and new data from research organisations, universities and governments will be used to populate the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture. CGIAR says that sharing high-quality data has amazing results. In Colombia recently, rice producers saved millions of dollars by delaying planting until a dry spell had passed, which was the result of CIAT and the Colombian government working together with shared information and goals. The Big Data Coordination Platform will run from 2017 to 2022, with the goal of harnessing the capabilities of big data to accelerate and enhance the impact of smart farming. 

Partners

  • AIRINOV
  • International Center for Tropical Agriculture
  • Groital Company Limited
  • Uhurulabs
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