By Winnie Kamau
Many farmers dream of being able to visualize their land from above.Visualizing their fields can help them predict their upcoming yield, prioritize resources for areas where their crops might be suffering, and plan ahead.
Some large-scale farmers, like Keimetit Chemilel, who grows vegetables, corn, and other cereals in Kenya’s Rift Valley and Kitale areas, have used helicopters to help survey their land, but many farmers don’t have such a luxury. Instead, they are turning to lower-cost technologies to help them assess their land from above like drones.
Drones are unmanned aircraft guided by remote control or on board computers. Though some people may think they are toys, they are actually miniature planes with mounted cameras. Often referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), they have become popular in Kenya in the art and music industries, where they are used to capture aerial shots for music videos. But they are becoming increasingly popular in the agricultural industry as well – particularly in South Africa, where companies like 3D Drone Map are bringing drones to everyday farmers in the hopes of helping them improve their businesses.
I met Luke Wijnberg and his business partner Chris Williams during the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture and Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition Conference (GFIA-GODAN) in Durban, South Africa. The two tall young men had hung their small aircrafts on their exhibition stand, and one might have easily thought they were selling planes rather than drones.
As farmers passed their stand, they enthusiastically explained the services they offered. A little chat with Wijnberg, the founder of 3D Drone Map, got me curious to understand how drones might help farmers.Wijnberg explains that the drone is able to map out farms using real-time images, helping farmers understand what’s happening on their land using the aerial view. Wijnberg comes from a family of surveyors and fell in love with measurement at a young age. He has worked as a land surveyor in South Africa since 2004. In 2011, Wijnberg got tired of the traditional way of surveying land and ventured into innovation. He teamed up with Chris Williams, a friend and Information Systems guru, to found 3D Drone Map. Their plan was to use a flying camera to transform the traditional trade of land surveying.
3Drone Map is a pioneer in South Africa, both building drones and offering mapping services to surveyors, farmers and land developers. The two partners built their drones from scratch with a vision that they would supply drones in the market, but got discouraged when there was an influx of drones from various other manufacturers.
It was also tedious to teach farmers how to use the drones they had made. Instead, they decided to focus on providing the much-needed service of mapping out farms and sites, giving the farmers the true picture of their farms.
A 2015 report released by UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that 780 million people from developing countries and 15 million people from developed countries are estimated to suffer from chronic hunger. Some of this food insecurity is due to the many challenges contemporary farmers face, from pest attacks to the unreliable weather patterns caused by climate change, all of which lead to lower crop yields.
Lawrence Kigoru, Director of Livelihood and Resilience at World Vision, notes with concern the need to embrace new technologies in order to respond to this growing food insecurity.
A World Bank report released in 2012 showed that if Africa could remove barriers to regional food trade and encourage private sector participation in regional trades, the African continent would produce enough food to feed its population. But all this cannot happen without embracing innovation. Mr. Kigoru urges that technological innovations, like drones, could help improve food security in Africa by increasing the production per unit in an area.
Like every new innovation, drones have faced some resistance, and are quite expensive. It costs a lot of money, time and research to build a drone; Wijnberg and Chris have invested over 30,000 USD in making the drone from scratch, excluding software and hardware. In addition, UAVs currently face many challenges in the regulations set up by the aviation industry of South Africa.
This has caused 3Drone Map not to offer their services to their fellow citizens causing them to look for clients in other African countries with less strict rules. For one to fly a drone in South Africa one is required to acquire a pilot license, which costs over 10,000 USD. In addition to this license, the software used to run a drone is equally expensive, making the cost skyrocket. In Kenya, the number of licenses that one needs to acquire from the aviation authorities and security forces make it equally difficult to operate a drone, and many operate the UAVs illegally.
But it is not all doom and gloom for 3Drone Map. An online moderated community of drone users called The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Agriculture (UAV4A) has created a platform where they are able to share their experiences and challenges from different parts of the world. Through UAV4A they are currently crowdsourcing the rules and regulations from various countries and trying to assist countries without these rules to formulate their own policies and regulations. UAV4A is managed by Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA) and International Potato Center (CIP). Here this community is able to share their experiences developing UAV technologies to improve the management of crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and other natural-resource-based activities.
Farmers with huge tracts of land like Chemilel are set to benefit from the use of drones. Instead of using their choppers, they can sit from the comfort of their homes and monitor their farms on a screen receiving signals from the UAV as it flies over the huge tracts of land. 3Drone Map offers various services in terms of images captured in real time. “For a standard 300 hectares, an orthophoto, which is a high-resolution picture showing contours, which is the bare basics, will cost 2,000 USD,” explains Wijnberg, “If one is to add Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI), which shows where the good plant growth and poor plant growth is in a farm, it will cost much more.
Other farmers just want line maps.” A farmer with huge tracts of land can contract this service at 2,000 USD, which covers the cost of equipment and software costs, legal and operational costs of holding an Air Services License and insurance. Through this service, it takes less time to survey your land and figure out the type of crop that needs to be fixed. Small-scale farmers can come together and contribute to have their farms visualized using high quality photographs, helping to prevent poor yields.
Other companies are also offering similar services around the world. SenseFly is a group of robotics researchers that use drones for agriculture. They are able to capture highly accurate images of fields covering hundreds of hectares in a single flight, without the cost and hassle of manned services. They are able to capture images which are of greater resolution than satellite images even where there is cloud cover, and are able to use the map to highlight exactly which areas of the crop need closer examination, treatment, or urgent action.
This new aerial vehicle might take some time before it sinks in and is adopted in many African countries, but this is the future and it needs urgent accommodation. There are pitfalls, like misuse of this powerful gadget through breaches of security in the wake of terrorism, which make security agents sceptical. The Kenya Civil Aviation banned the use of drones by civilians asking that if one wishes to use the UAVs to get a license from ministry of defense. But one thing is sure: the embrace of the new innovations will help farmers increase their yields. UAVs will indeed revolutionise the agricultural sector if handled well.
This reporting is a part of the Agritools project, which is supported by the European Journalism Centre and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.