The Future of Farming in SA: Using Technology to Make Farmers Lives Easier

Published: 05 September 2019

Core to the survival of the human race looking forward in to the future, will be our sustained ability to feed ourselves. This thought seems like a far cry from home for those living in the first world, where the abundance of food products on supermarket shelves has never been an issue – but let’s for a moment consider the intricate supply chain that leads to this point, a process which is often somewhat lost on us as end consumers.

This process begins with early starts and tireless hours of work by farmers the world over. These farmers play a highly stressful balancing act to protect their crop and ensure it makes its way to the point where it can be harvested and sold, refined, packaged and ultimately turned in the end product which we purchase and consume.

Consider now, that the lives of these farmers has evolved greatly over the last decade. Major changes in climate, temperatures, rainfall and the proliferation of harmful pests and insects all contribute to the multitude of factors that they need to be thinking of on a permanent basis to ensure the success of their crop. So how is this changing and what is technology offering to simplify this complex balancing act?

Across the globe, agronomists, scientists, mathematicians, geologists, climatologists and farmers have been working together to understand the influences on the modern farmer and build tools to help ease the burden faced in this industry on a daily basis. The solutions have come in many shapes and forms, some replacing existing processes, tools and activities, some bringing entirely new ideals to the world of farming. The focus of this article is specifically on two South African borne businesses, PACSys and Aerobotics, who are using drone technology to assist farmers in carrying out previously costly aerial tasks like crop spraying, while also using this aerial advantage in combination with AI (artificial intelligence) to carry out early pest and disease detection, among other advantageous supportive farming activities.

 

Are Drones Replacing the Traditional Crop Sprayer?

 

A key part of all farming is the managing of harmful insects and pests which have been known to destroy entire crop lands if not prevented from doing so by manual intervention. For long, this exercise has been carried out through conventional crop-spraying methods, with the use of aircraft and helicopters. Naturally, the use of these large scale assets comes at a great cost, which is ultimately passed on to the farmer, who has no choice but to pass it on to the end consumer. It is this cost of production which has the ability to leave the farmer wanting for a buyer, when their crop, all else equal, is more expensive than a competitors. So how do farmers lower this cost and make the protection of their crop more efficient?

South African based PACSys, set up by a group of private sugar cane farmers in Kwazulu-Natal is an authorised distributor of the Chinese manufactured DJI’s Agras crop spraying drones in the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region. These drones have been conceived to cater to all the idiocyncrasies required for efficient and precise crop spraying, including a radar sensing systems to allow for height adjustment on uneven terrain as well as highly precise obstacle avoidance, an operation planning system which allows for flight planning and boundary setting, as well as several additional innovations to ensure ease and success of use.

These drones have been successfully deployed and used on farms across Southern Africa at a small scale, proving the case that they are in fact able to at least augment the previously higher cost, less environmentally friendly and less effective methods used.

More detail on the the DJI Agras and the drone in full action below:

Courtesy dji.com

 

Courtesy PACSys Africa on YouTube

 

Through the use of the Agras MG-1P, PACSys have been able to ascertain where improvements could be made to the drone and have engaged with DJI on these improvements. It is with this feedback loop from the teams using the drones in the field that DJI are soon to release their next generation of crop spraying drown in the form of the Agras T16, a new and improved big brother to the MG-1P, with increased spraying capacity, a more intelligent method to map and  pin point the spraying of trees of varying heights in an orchard environment and a more modular design to allow for the easy switching of both the battery and spray tank.

See the new DJI Agras T16 in action.

Update 11/10/2019: PacSYS conducted the first commercial flight on the 27th of September 2019, following approval for crop spraying drone operations by the SACAA (South African Civil Aviation Authority), a process which took over 2 years. In addition, the first batch of commercial drone spraying pilots, who underwent training in PACSys’s Agric Drone Pilot Training Program are now operational. See more about the training program and the first batch of commercial drone pilots here.

 

Using Artificial Intelligence to Assess Crop Health and Manage Disease

 

With crop spraying in mind, the key intention of the farmer is to prevent their crop from being damaged by insects and pests, but what if the farmer could analyse their orchard or crop on an ongoing basis, assess its health and target spraying and management activities more precisely?

This is where another South African born company, Aerobotics is playing a key role in assisting farmers. With their AI-based analytics platform, Aerobotics will use a combination of satellite imagery and drone imagery to help farmers map and manage their orchards and crops, identify problem areas and help plan nutrient supplementation, as well as pest and disease management with the assistance of partners like PACSys.

Courtesy aerobotics.com

 

Courtesy Aerobotics on YouTube

 

If Agriculture Can Benefit, What Can’t?

 

As industries evolve and digitise to incorporate technology, it is becoming more apparent that there are very few, if any industry’s which falls outside the benefits on offer.

Considering the importance of food to us as humans, its’ scarcity in many parts of the world and the increasing fears around food security even in the first world, it is positive to see the momentum that companies like PACSys and Aerobotics have garnered and continue to garner. With increased efficiency and the ability to make more intelligent decisions through the use of data, one can only begin to think that it is technologies like these which will underpin the future of farming.

 

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