Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been commercially available since the 1980s, though their presence was strictly restricted to certain industries such as film and geographical information systems. The past five years have witnessed the drone industry transform from a relatively insignificant niche in the toy section of many retail stores to a multi-billion dollar one with revenue sales rivaling those of computer manufacturers. The almost sudden popularity of drones can be credited to their vast array of uses, including film, construction, science, household espionage, the military, package delivery, and more recently – and might I add importantly – agriculture. Drone technology has flown right into agriculture, essentially improving crop health, water efficiency, fertilizer application, field irrigation, as well as crop field monitoring.
The following is just a few ways drones could substantially improve farming while advancing South Africa’s competitive edge in the international trade of agricultural commodities.
- Crop Health – Crop quality is the most pivotal determinant of competitiveness next to retail price. The value of any crop is a function of its health and quality. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, drone technology is very useful in this regard in that drones equipped with sensors can collect plant height measurements by gathering range information from the plant canopy and the ground below. This in turn aids in creating vegetation index images, indicating which plants are healthy and absorbing maximum sunlight by measuring near infrared wavelengths through a multispectral sensor.
- Fertilizer application – High-tech drones with satellite mapping and sensors that absorb near-infrared wavelengths have the capacity to show where phosphorous and nitrogen are needed, or where there is an excess of such nutrients. This means nutrients can be applied where they are needed the most with absolute precision, helping to increase production efficiency and ultimately yield.
- Natural resource preservation – Agricultural drones have thermal cameras that are able to distinguish well-irrigated regions from dry patches. This could help farmers with adjusting field irrigation accordingly while saving a fortune on water costs, particularly in South Africa where water is a tremendously scarce resource.
- Crop field monitoring – Crop field monitoring can be quite costly and time-consuming, especially when done the primitive way, which is to say on foot or by a tractor. Drones are a relief in this regard because of their ability to survey fields and immediately provide feedback which helps farmers to take quick decisions about potential hazards such as disease outbreaks. In addition, drones also help in identifying areas of the farm, such as fencing, that need maintenance.
Agriculture is a dynamic and enormously uncertain industry with resources, both natural and man-made, at a bare minimum. Drones however limit the inherent risks associated with agriculture by instantly providing farmers with aerial vegetation index images that aid in curbing wasteful resource administration while simultaneously increasing efficiency and aggregate yield.