By Heidi Gibson | Article appeared in the October edition of World Airnews magazine | www.airnews.co.za
World Airnews caught up with a South African company called Precision Agricultural Systems or PacSys, which has been at the forefront of research and technology aimed at refining the capabilities of drones to cope with the demands of crop spraying in a tough environment. We interviewed PacSys CEO Tim Wise.
WAN: Can you tell your readers about the beginnings of PacSys? When and why did you start it? What were the challenges that brought you to where you are today?
TW: PACSys was established in 2016 by a group of neighbouring sugarcane farmers on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast. Sugarcane, due to its density and the typically steep terrain in which it’s grown (especially in KZN), is heavily reliant on the aerial application of pesticides. However, factors such as small, irregularly shaped fields, high coastal winds and the prevalence of powerlines and bush lines increase the risk of toxic pesticides drifting into neighbouring crops and even residential communities.
We started PACSys initially to improve the quality and safety of aerial spraying on our farms. We never anticipated the hugely positive response we’d get from the other crop sectors as well. By far the greatest challenge in terms of market adoption was overcoming the regulatory hurdles. Aerial pesticide application in South Africa is strictly regulated by both the South African Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. And in 2017, when PACSys initiated the compliance process for drone spraying operations in South Africa, there was no precedent. It had never been done legally before. The process required extensive engagements with relevant authorities and stakeholders over a period of about two years before the approval of legal commercial drone crop spraying operations in September 2019.
WAN: What type of drone do you believe is the best suited for the different crops grown on the North Coast and elsewhere in the world? Can you elaborate on your relationship with DJI – going back to the beginning?
TW: After PACSys was established in 2016, I travelled to the USA, Australia and China to assess crop spraying drones/manufacturers that were emerging as front-runners in the space. One of my stops was DJI’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China. Here, DJI demonstrated their first version of crop spraying drone, the Agras MG-1.
With limited payload and functionality, it wouldn’t have been capable of effectively and economically competing with traditional aircraft on our farms. At the very least though, this initial meeting with DJI paved the way for an extremely productive R&D collaboration.
Upon returning from my trip, I sent DJI a requirements document, detailing the functionality required to enable the drones to operate in our challenging KZN North Coast conditions. Not thinking I’d have any influence over a company of DJI’s stature, I was surprised to receive an invitation from them six months later to return and view their second version of the drone, the Agras MG-1S, which now incorporated much of the functionality I’d specified.
At the time of this invitation, PACSys had begun the process of developing our crop spraying drones. When I saw the extent of improvement between the MG-1 and MG-1S version drones, in a matter of only six months, it was very clear that we should instead negotiate a DJI Agriculture dealership. Fast forward five years and the latest DJI Agras T30 version drone is almost five times more efficient than the original MG series drones.
DJI is currently on an 18-month development cycle, releasing drones every 18 months that are approximately 30%-50% more efficient than its predecessor. This means operating costs are plummeting, especially when compared to the cost of traditional aerial applications, heavily exposed to the fuel price. Rapidly declining operating costs are now already in many cases making drone applications compared with the cost and efficacy of even high-volume tractor-boom applications.
WAN: How far has your test gone with regard to the performance of the drone crop spraying on macadamia trees? And do you have any other recent information on similar tests on different crops – what is this research telling farmers?
TW: Macadamia orchards require high volume pesticide applications to ensure optimal pesticide coverage and therefore efficacy, making the drones (applying at lower aerial application rates) a tough sell in this sector for now.
The emergence of exciting tech in the precision agriculture space however – where the health of crops and orchards are assessed using various agronomic inputs such as drone NDVI imagery, soil/leaf sampling, trap counts, etc – bodes very well for especially the high-value orchard sector. The ability to accurately identify, isolate and treat only problem areas within orchards will unlock increased drone spot-spraying applications in orchards, ultimately resulting in reduced pesticide costs, environmental impact and water consumption.
One of the most prevalent pests in macadamia orchards is the stink bug, which roosts towards the top third of the tree at night. It’s justified therefore, as the drones are capable of night operations, to reduce the application volumes in this instance as the target is only the top portion of the tree. The drones come in over the tops of orchards and the downdraft created by the propellers ensures extremely good penetration of the pesticide throughout the tree profile. Another benefit of night pesticide application is the reduced impact on critical bee populations (as they’re active during the day). Although difficult to quantify the exact financial benefit, lower volume stink bug applications done at night with drones in macadamia orchards for example are seemingly proving to be more beneficial than higher volume day operations.
WAN: What about the rest of Africa? How far has this type of drone technology reached the continent?
TW: For the reasons explained above, sugarcane was the first and most receptive crop as far as drone spraying in southern Africa is concerned. Sugarcane is grown extensively in the likes of Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania thus PACSys has sold several drones into these markets. As the technology continues to evolve so rapidly, they’re becoming commercially viable in a variety of other crops grown throughout Southern Africa (i.e. maize, wheat, soyabeans, potatoes, cotton, citrus, macadamia, timber, etc) and thus our sales are increasing into multiple crop sectors in multiple regions and countries.
WAN: What about the small subsistence or small to medium-sized farms where income and support are not readily available? How could these categories of farmers access this type of technology? Can they at all? If so could you suggest where and to whom they go?
TW: This is one of the most exciting aspects of drone spraying technology. It’s very well suited to enhancing productivity and (ultimately income) in the communities that need it the most. A large proportion of sugarcane in South Africa for example is produced by small-scale growers, who are largely neglected by the commercial aerial pesticide applicators due to the typical remoteness and smaller size of their farms. The opportunity cost of not enhancing production in the small-scale grower communities in South Africa is massive, from both the growers’ and the millers’ perspectives. PACSys has recently presented a proposal to relevant sugar industry stakeholders whereby transformation budgets available within the sector are used to establish commercial drone spraying operations within small-scale communities, to service their spraying requirements. All pilot training and compliance support would be provided by PACSys.
This initiative would benefit the communities on two fronts: firstly, job creation (pilots and assistants would be employed from within the communities) and secondly, the additional revenue injection resulting from enhanced productivity.
WAN: What is the payload for the type of drone recommended? How many hectares can this cover and at what time? Why is better to use a drone?
TW: The latest DJI Agras T30 has a 30 litre / 40kg payload, and when spraying at the typical aerial application rates in South Africa (i.e. 30 litres per hectare) the drone is capable of spraying approximately 8 hectares per hour, including tank refills and battery changes, day and night.
When compared with traditional manned aircraft, the primary benefits of the drone are that it’s more precise (GPS controlled), with far less risk of drift, and it achieves superior plant canopy penetration due to the drone flying slower than traditional aircraft and the nozzles being positioned directly below the propellers (i.e. creating a “mist-blower” effect over the top of the plant). When comparing spray drones to tractor-mounted booms, the primary benefit is that drones do not cause soil compaction/crop damage (especially in wet conditions). Soil compaction caused by tractor-mounted boom sprayers can reduce productivity by as much as 6%.
WAN: What about the licensing process? The last I can remember it could take up to two years for a person to be trained and certified by the SACAA. Why does it take so long? And of course – does the drone need to be approved for operation?
TW: SACAA drone licensing timeframes have improved significantly since we first initiated the drone spraying approval process in 2017. Simply speaking, three levels of licenses / approvals are required for legal drone spraying operations i.e. company, pilot and drone. The company-level license is known as a ROC and the process typically takes 12-18 months. All crop spraying pilots in South Africa must be registered Pest Control Operators, a process that takes approximately 6 months and includes obtaining the RPL (the drone pilots’ license) and serving out an internship. The drone-level license is known as an RLA, a process that can take 2-3 months, and is required for all individual drones in the fleet.
WAN: Now let’s cast our mind out across the world. From your perspective – what do you see in the future for these unmanned aerial vehicles and the part that they can play in the farming sector?
TW: At the rate at which the technology is evolving, I believe it will become the industry’s preferred method of pesticide application within the next five years. Certainly, in the case of South African sugarcane, drones right now can apply pesticides more effectively and cheaply than traditional manned aircraft, in all regions. I see this trend expanding into other crop sectors and more rapidly from now.
WAN: Can you explain some of the challenges faced from a development, economic and regulatory context?
TW: By far the greatest factor preventing mass adoption of the technology are the regulations. As previously mentioned, in addition to a significant initial capital outlay (drones & equipment), it can take up to 18 months to become a fully compliant commercial drone operator, including a 6-month internship for the pilot. PACSys fully supports compliant operations by skilled pilots to ensure high-quality spraying and therefore, to facilitate responsible integration/adoption of the technology, PACSys has established a high-performance centre in Ballito, KZN where pilots can complete their required internships under the tutelage and guidance of our industry-leading instructors and in some of the most challenging aerial spraying conditions possible.
WAN: In Vietnam, farmers are turning to the XAG agricultural drones as the vehicle of choice to spray rice crops. Do you know anything about this drone and can you offer an opinion on why it may be a better option than the DJI?
TW: XAG has often offered PACSys exclusive distribution in Southern Africa, which we’ve always turned down. The XAG drones are most efficient when set to spray at lower volumes of around 10-15 litres per hectare. In South Africa, most aerially registered pesticides are required to be applied at no less than 30 litres per hectare. At these registered rates, the DJI Agras T30 is more efficient than the XAG in terms of the number of hectares it can spray per hour. And the higher volume application results in better plant coverage and therefore superior efficacy. To operate, the XAG also requires good 4G or 5G data coverage, which isn’t available on many Southern African farms. The DJI drones operate off satellite connections and the coverage is excellent. Lastly, the quality of the products and the availability of parts and the quality of support are critical when crop spraying. Spray drones operate low to the ground and in amongst powerlines, trees, steep hillsides and various other potentially hazardous obstacles. Even the most skilled pilots sometimes will have an incident. And “downtime” caused by repairs to an aircraft in a commercial spraying environment, considering how time-sensitive pesticide applications are, is a financial killer for both the operator and the farmer. In our experience, DJI (which has a 75% market share in China) cannot be beaten in terms of the quality and availability of its parts and support.
WAN: Any last words of advice for farmers out there?
TW:Our advice to farmers and budding commercial spraying contractors, considering the number of dealers now flocking into the drone spraying market, is to ensure they purchase from reputable suppliers who have a proven track record, throughout the product lifecycle – from the initial needs assessment to training and most importantly the after-sales support/service. These products are far more technical than your average photography and videography drones, and they operate in complex agricultural environments. Only professional suppliers will ensure farmers and contractors achieve an optimal return on their investment.