BLOG: Drones – keeping an eye on the potato crop
It’s a sunny morning and the potato farmer stands looking anxiously, it appears, skywards. What is that he sees? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-drone – part of the changing face of 21st century agriculture, writes Andre Erasmus.
These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) are the future. The eye on the sky is now no longer watching the weather but the eye in the sky gathering important data.
This modern hi-tech stuff is important for global agriculture. For governments and development agencies, drones can provide more accurate, up-to-date information on what is being grown where. For individual farmers, this kind of information could be the difference between a failed crop and a bumper harvest.
And it works for science and the future of farming too. Scientists at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute believe these UAVs can take potato breeding into a whole new world.
Resembling scaled-down stealth bombers, these remotely controlled drones are mounted with a camera and take hundreds of pictures as they fly repeated missions over the potato fields. Surveyors then collate all the images and create a three-dimensional model of the crop.
Dr Ankush Prashar of the James Hutton Institute said: “With the onset of climate change and increasing unpredictability across the UK, improved adaptation and yield responses of potato crops require accurate measurement of crop development under different climate scenarios.
“This evaluation relies on a combination of visual selection as well as extensive and detailed genetic assessment, performed over several tuber generations.”
Until now, evaluating the success of trials was based on studying the potatoes after they were harvested. But the new imaging techniques have made it possible for the researchers to study the height, density and health of the foliage, and the crop’s response to shortages of water and nutrients while the crop is growing.
So, is this a fad or a growing (excuse the pun) trend for agriculture? According to a recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report, the agricultural drone market has the potential to generate an additional 100,000 jobs in the USA and $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025.
The report anticipates that drones will see even more liftoff in the agriculture industry, predicting that 80% of the commercial market for drones will eventually be dedicated to agriculture.
It is not only the more modern nations that are using drones, I discovered when using Google to gather more information.
The International Potato Centre (CIP) has been carrying out UAV trials in Tanzania and Uganda, working in partnership with the national bureaus of statistics in both countries. The CIP says accurate data is crucial for effective agricultural policymaking and the World Bank this year highlighted how patchy that data is for much of sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Dieudonné Harahagazwe, a senior CIP scientist based in Nairobi, this data gap is behind agencies’ eagerness to participate in researching the potential of drones. “Donors and governments look at statistics, and in some places smallholder plots are so small we don’t have precise statistics on their crops,” he said.
Yes, this is the future and it here today. As a potato farmer friend said to me: “If precision technology has driven the farming revolution of recent years, monitoring crops from the sky will drive the next”.