World population is projected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, with global food demand expected to increase substantially. Questions have been raised on whether there will be enough food or not by 2050, noting also the impact of climate change on food security.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than 815 million people are chronically hungry and the world needs to increase food production by almost 50% by 2050 yet resources such as land and water are becoming scarce. Farmers therefore have to embrace the opportunities provided by ICTs for sustainable farming practices and meeting the future demand for food, hence the idea of precision agriculture.
Precision agriculture refers to an attempt to use new technologies to increase crop yields and agricultural profitability by collecting, processing and analysing multisource data for decision making and operations in the management of crop production.
ICTs driven approaches to sustainable farming practices and precision farming have seen the recent increase in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as drones in agriculture. In agriculture, drones can be used with GPRS, infrared cameras with enhanced sensors and programmable controllers for data collection.
Commercial farmers in Zimbabwe can also capitalise on the use of drone technology, for example tobacco farmers can use larger drones for spraying chemicals, thus reducing labour cost.
The same can be said for cotton farmers and sugarcane farmers when spraying herbicides and on a larger scale, for agricultural studies and in research.
Thanks to the Zimbabwean government through the Civil Aviation Authority for the promulgation of drone operation regulations and licensing systems which are not so complex. The law requires individuals and organisations to have a license for them to legally operate a drone in Zimbabwe as guided by Statutory Instrument (SI) 271 of 2018. The license is valid for 2 years.
How can farmers in Zimbabwe apply drone technology?
Cotton and tobacco producers, both small scale and large scale understand that spraying is laborious. It requires a large labour force when it is done manually, adding to the total cost of production. Alternatively, farmers can use drones which do not only save on capital, but are fast and reliable.
This technology was first used in Japan in the 1980s ,when unmanned helicopters were equipped with pesticide tanks and spraying equipment, although the legislative framework has been affecting the use of the system. Modern drones can also be equipped with such reservoirs which can then be filled with chemicals for spraying.
They can also be used in the same way to apply fertilisers in the fields. In yet another advantage, spot spraying can be done to avoid wasting resources.
Livestock supervision and management
Drones can be used in livestock health monitoring using sensors and imaging. Drones fitted with cameras and thermal imaging capabilities can monitor livestock movement and health. They can be used to detect straying, sick or injured animals as well as counting.
Drones with thermal imaging capacity can be used to detect predators before they prey on the farmer’s livestock. Cattle rustlers can also be easily identified and all this doesn’t require as much labour. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), with the application of high resolution infrared cameras, every single animal is a separate heat mark enabling counting with an accuracy higher than using conventional methods.
The development of applications of infrared cameras in herds monitoring allows even more sophisticated tasks. Focusing on a single animal with a high-resolution infrared camera enables assessment of its health based on a temperature comparison, allowing swift identification and treatment of ill animals.
Drone technology can also be used with Global Positioning System and Remote Sensing (GPRS) systems for field and plant performance analysis. Drones can be used to collect data on plant health and field nutrients, 3D elevation, presence of weeds and diseases.
Drones can give detailed maps of crop area, plant performance and responses to fertiliser or chemical application. The Food and Agriculture Organization states that mapping and imaging capabilities of drone platforms with a range of sensors can be used throughout the whole production process in order to plan production better and therefore improve productivity.
It is also given that the fusion of advanced aerial information acquired with the help of drones with data from other sources such as weather forecasts and soil maps can help to refine the final information and enable the farmer to take full advantage of the farm and maximize the yields to their natural limits.
Large scale commercial farmers particularly those in the production of Zimbabwe’s forex earners should start investing in these technologies. Collection and analysis as well as monitoring of plant health enables farmers to make informed choices which can lead to high quality produce. High quality tobacco for instance can fetch a higher price and survive competition on the international market.
Ines Hajdu, an agronomy expert, also explains how drones can be used for productivity enhancement. She gives six parameters where drone technology can be used to monitor. These include:
1. Crop health – damage made by pests and colour change due to pest infection
2. Vegetation indices – leaf area anomaly detection, treatment efficacy, phenology and yield.
3. Plant scouting – plant size, plot statistics, stand number, compromised plots and planter skips.
4. Water needs – stressed parts of the field.
5. Soil analysis – nutrient availability for plant nutrient management
6. Plant height – plant height and density.
In conclusion, farmers in Zimbabwe should consider investing in ICTs including drone technology. They should keep abreast with modern technology for sustainable farming. Information collected can be used by farmers to make informed decisions.
Spraying chemicals and applying fertilisers can be done. Smart agriculture is the way to go as farmers have to withstand the adverse effects of climate change and meet the future demands for food. – Justin Salani, farm technology enthusiast