‘Precision farming’ drones take off in South Africa

 ·7 Jul 2024

Farmers and operations in South Africa’s agricultural sector are increasingly turning to drones to assist with “precision farming”—a technique involving the analysis and consideration of several factors to determine the correct inputs for maximum outcome.

According to Kopano Tholo, a drone expert at ITOO Special Risks, farmers around the world are under pressure to boost the efficiency of resource management in the face of tough economic conditions.

At the same time, the “farm-to-plate” phenomenon has seen a greater push for better traceability of food products as consumers are concerned about the sources of the foods and how they were produced.

Tholo noted that drones are now taking over from more costly processes, being used to help farmers streamline important information on their crops through data and topography analytics.

“Agriculture in the modern era is all about speed and precision, and over the past few years, precision farming has seen significant growth across the globe. Today, a considerable portion of new farm equipment contains some form of precision farming elements,” said Tholo.

“Essentially, precision farming comes down to doing the right thing in the right place at the right time with the right amount. This results in higher profitability, better sustainability and greater productivity while saving time.”

He said drones are used to fulfil a variety of tasks in precision farming, ranging from soil sampling and crop field analysis to planting and pesticide application.

Drones in agriculture can be combined with various imaging technologies that provide farmers with temporal and site-specific information about crop health, fungal infections or growth bottlenecks.

The use of drones in agricultural practices in South Africa, specifically for functions such as spraying pesticides, has gained significant attention in recent years. Traditionally, crops would typically be sprayed from fixed-wing planes, microlights or helicopters.

However, drone technology has proven to be more efficient for this task, as they can get much closer to crops than other aircraft.

“This obviously enables more precise pesticide application and allows for close to 100% of field areas to be sprayed, whereas challenging terrain often prevents other types of aircraft from being as efficient,” said Tholo.

Rise of drone use

The drone market in South Africa has grown substantially in recent years, and the country is currently the biggest user of drone technology on the continent.

Research firm Industry ARC recently revealed that the local market for small drones is growing fast and is set to reach R2.5 billion by 2025, with an annual growth rate of 22.35% between 2020 and 2025.

Currently, the biggest user of drone technology in South Africa is the mining sector, where drones are used for applications such as safety, inventory monitoring, and 3D modelling.

This is followed by the film and entertainment industry and the agricultural sector, where drones are increasingly used for precision farming.

Aside from the commercial benefits of using drones in farming, the tech also carries heft in pushing for more ‘green’ and sustainable methods.

Major South African retailer Woolworths recently highlighted that its suppliers are increasingly using drones in a push for regenerative agriculture and water conservation.

Specifically, the group’s suppliers are using drone technology to identify plants under stress, allowing farmers to make data-driven decisions and conserve water resources, it said.

This also forms part of precision farming.

Farmers can monitor the health of crops and detect signs of strain by utilising drones with advanced sensors, allowing for targeted irrigation and resource management.

“Some of our farmers use drones to check for trees that are compromised,” said Latiefa Behardien, Chief Food Technology and Sustainability Officer at Woolworths’ Farming for the Future.

“Instead of watering all the trees all the time, the farmer can water only those who are thirsty and manage this precious resource better. This is just one example of how technology is transforming agriculture and paving the way for a more sustainable future.”

Through drone technology, farmers can optimise water usage, reduce waste and mitigate the impacts of climate change on agriculture practices.

Data-driven insights also allow farmers to enhance crop resilience and improve yield, the group said.

Read: Jail time warning for drone users in South Africa

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