Farmers dig drones – but they need more time to understand them

Most farmers in Africa would love to incorporate drone technology into their daily agricultural operations – but they are being set back by lack of information on how to properly use the technology right now.

At least that is what came out of a report by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), there is general optimism about the prospects of the deployment of drone technology into farming operations.

Funded by the European Union, the CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). Their activities involve engaging the youth and digital technology in working towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with focus on ending poverty and hunger; promoting sustainable agriculture and achieving food security; achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls; promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all; and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impact on the world.

Their headquarters are in the Netherlands.

“Eight-five percent of survey participants said that they view the use of drones in agriculture favourably,” the CTA report, which was written by Denise Seosilo and Giacomo Rambaldi said. They believe drones play an integral part in modernising agriculture and increasing yield and efficiency. Respondents consider that some of the most important applications include the assessment of crop health, the generation of topographical maps and the detection of varying rates of fertiliser applications on large holdings. In addition, the use of drones to detect and control pests and diseases, and the ability to rapidly collect information over large areas was most often cited as a reason for the favourable views.”

Researchers especially were vocal about the benefits they perceived would come from the technology as the following examples show: “Drones will make agriculture more environment-friendly and sustainable, by reducing the application of pesticides, fertilisers, water and other inputs”.

However, the need for more awareness and education on drones underlined the farmers’ optimism. And indifference too, as epitomised by ten percent of respondents who said they had no position on drones, because they simply knew nothing about them; they had neither enough information nor experience. Farmers emphasized that additional information to understand the technology and its applications in agriculture was needed; especially, robust awareness-raising and capacity building ventures. As there is no adequate capacity to manage data in developing countries, this has also implication of losing intellectual property. There is a need to first build capacities of African universities and research organisations to manage their data before investing on technologies such as drones”.

It was for the lack of this information that the remainder of the respondents returned a suspicious view of drones in their midst, citing reasons like cost, regulation and the possibility of drones taking people’s jobs and rendering them redundant.

Said the report, “A researcher from Eastern Africa stated that drones in agriculture are mostly used by medium to large scale farmers yet, the majority of the farmers in Africa are smallholders who can’t benefit from the technology.”

Giacomo Rambaldi, left, and Denise Seosilo wrote the report

Another responded perceived that costs would be a hindrance to smaller farmers, as exemplified by the following comment by a government official and researcher from Western Africa. Indeed, agriculture drones are not your usual run-of-the-mill consumer-grade camera drone or racing drone; they are advanced data-gathering tools for serious professional operations.  A complete, ready-to-fly agriculture drone system cost can anything from $1,500 to well over $25,000. For this price, the latter drone should be able to do the following:

  • Assess crop health
  • Make topographical maps
  • Determine in-field, location-specific variable rates
  • Assess crop stands
  • Assess crop water requirements
  • Monitor impact of treatments and tests
  • Assess /document damage on crops or farm infrastructure
  • Inspect fixed assets
  • Assess biomass of grazing areas, monitor livestock and…
  • Provide evidence of a farmer’s credit-worthiness
  • Assess soil before planting
  • Marketing purposes
  • Monitor crops, livestock and infrastructure against theft…
  • Calculate stockpile volumes
  • Soil assessment
  • Review of plant population
  • Irrigation and drainage
  • Fertility and crop protection
  • Spraying of fertilizer and pesticides
  • Harvest planning

This might seem as if drones would only be fit to be used by big farmers who want to fly their own imaging missions, and

agriculture service providers who will offer their drone services to farmers at a price. Some respondents wondered at the possibility of exploring communal ownership of drones for small-scale farmers who need their services the most. For instance, farmers can organise themselves into a union; or a rural council can purchase agriculture drones for its local farmers and devise a schedule which the drone operators will follow to serve all areas. In a world where food security should be prioritised in the wake of population growth and climate change, capacitating small holder farmers to boost agriculture productivity is key.

As one respondent said, “The largest part of farmers is small-scale and subsistence in nature – their individual engagements also involve a multitude of crop types that require diversities of treatments. Thus, specifying the utility of drones may present significant challenges yet the relative cost of acquiring a drone may not make the technology feasible, for the individual farmers. At least in Africa as a general rule, we may need to bundle a number of farmers together, in order to be served by a single drone feasibly. And as such, application of the technology could remain on generic field aspects, that invite for a thorough articulation of need being addressed.”

A total of 1,432 from Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific region took part in the report; and 91 percent of them were from Africa. Among them were farmers, drone pilots, researchers, agriculture ministry and extension service workers. Outside of Africa, the main concern was with data security, with respondents worried about being spied upon and their data shared with unknown parties, either wilfully or due to lack of knowledge on responsible use.


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