Africa embraces drones for crops monitoring and research

Saturday June 25 2016

Drones spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou in

Drones spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou in Central China’s Anhui Province. Drones are increasingly being used by farmers to survey farms and fight harmful insects that destroy crops. PHOTO | AFP 

By CLIFFORD GIKUNDA

Scientists are planning to develop drones to monitor farms and facilitate scientific research in Africa.

The technology has already been adopted in the US and Europe, where scientists and farmers use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect agricultural statistics.

In recently published research findings by Grand View Research, the global commercial drone market is estimated at $522 million and could grow to $2.07 billion by 2022, with farmers dominating the list of drones users.

“In the digital era, everything revolves around information. UAVs are important because they can play an important role in agricultural info-economics,” said Prof Lukman Mulumba of Makerere University.

According to Prof Lukman, UAVs facilitate the control of epidemics and yield prediction and enable scientists to come up with early warning systems.
For instance, UAVs are used to monitor the movement of desert locusts from Europe and America to Africa.

During the locust crises between 2000 and 2005, in North America, $500 million was spent on insecticides to save 300 million hectares of land that had been invaded by the insects.

To control the locust, vulnerable countries use drones and ground surveillance to identify and eliminate their breeding areas to support control teams with less expensive and efficient methods of searching for the destructive insects.

According to Dr Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecasting officer with the Food and Agricultural Organisation, there are currently three main limitations that impact locust monitoring systems, especially where control teams scrub the desert to find and treat infestations.

Growth of technology

“This is another technology jump that is quickly growing in size, in applications, in building expertise, and it applies to all sectors in the society. It allows us to take physical positions above water or land that are unnatural to human beings, giving a different angle to the way we look at things,” said Dr Rolf de By, an associate professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“For agricultural purposes, we use the technology to make images of the fields, which assist us to plan. The UAV is fitted with specialised colour sensors for specific tasks and operates below the clouds, making images much clearer and better than the ones captured by the satellite,” Prof Rolf said.

Agricultural aircraft have been in use since the 1920s but it was not until recently that the UAV technology, mainly associated with the military, was adopted.

“African agriculture is adhoc but the technology can assist us to make timely decisions,” said Stephen Muchiri, the chief executive of the East African Farmers Federation.

Despite the potential of the technology on the continent, its adoption remains low mainly due to restrictions on its application.

In Kenya, for instance, the use of UAVs is banned, although Civil Aviation Authority has published regulations as it starts embracing UAVs.

Tanzania last month announced that it will deploy drones in Tarangire National Park in a new anti-poaching initiative while Rwanda announced that drones will soon be used to deliver medical supplies across the country.