Drones for Inclusive Growth in Agriculture

With drones, smallholder farmers can use crop inputs more efficiently, reduce working time and minimize potential exposure to agrochemicals, as compared to the application with backpack sprayers. Drone solutions enable high-speed spraying and precision, optimizing the amount of crop inputs and reducing the water needed. BASF has been conducting first pilots, which have shown encouraging results, and has the goal to reach 8,000 farmers in Latin America within five years.

A drone is flying over a rice field in Ecuador. (c) Fernando Mora/BASF

Dr. Diana Moran

Dr. Diana Moran is Sustainability Manager at BASF Agricultural Solutions in Germany. She joined BASF in 2012, working as laboratory leader for crop protection application technology until 2015, when she moved into the field of sustainability in agriculture.

BASF Agricultural Solutions

„An Ecosystem that has been adapted according to the human activity of agriculture is called an Agroecosystem. Its management goes far beyond the planning of farming practices that lead to higher crop yield and animal production. Agronomists should ensure that all living and non-living organisms in the system interact coherently in the benefit of its preservation”. This is what my Natural Science Teacher told us in a career orientation session in 8th grade. To a 14 years-old teenager, who dreamt of helping the poor of her country, agronomy sounded like the most noble, complex, and decisive science to change the fate of smallholder farmers in El Salvador.

 

Back in El Salvador, the number 90 dominated the agricultural statistics: about 90 percent of all farms have a size of less than two “manzanas” (equivalent to 1.4 hectares) and about 90 percent of farmers in my country own only 28 percent of arable land, while 72 percent of the national farming surface was owned by 10 percent of the farmers. The number 90 therefore reflects the asymmetry of our agroecosystem.

 

Small-scale farmers face daily challenges that are often due to a lack of know-how about optimal cultivation practices, management of plant disease and pests as well as insufficient equipment. It is also often difficult for these farmers to assess the right time and dose to apply crop inputs. In many cases this leads to an overuse or underuse and in turn to a potential increase of pest and disease resistance. Sadly enough, misuse of crop inputs also represents a latent health risk to farmers and the environment.

 

This innovative application technology could replace one of the most physically demanding jobs and thereby could also motivate rural youth, with an affinity for digital technology, to engage in agriculture in developing countries.

 

If agronomists are dealing with a complex job, farmers and especially small-scaled farmers, have the biggest job on earth. With a national average education of 2 years and practically no formal education in the rural areas, smallholders are expected to increase the productivity of their farmland, the efficiency of agricultural inputs and to ensure the responsible use of crop protection products. Could the use of precision farming technology, like for example drones to spray crop inputs, be an innovative solution to these challenges?

 

Yes, it can! …if the technology is accompanied with appropriate social interventions that ensure its adoption and if it is brought to farmers as part of an inclusive business model, in which their return on investment is placed in the forefront. In this context, digitalisation – and in particular drones - can address the inequality of information and access to vital products to better help farmers protect their crops, improve their productivity and achieve greater profitability.

 

 

Drones are remote-controlled aircrafts, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Combined with analytic tools, drones help farmers to collect real-time information about their farms, including indexes to describe the nutritional status of plants, plant biomass and crop development affected by abiotic and biotic stresses. Similar to satellites, drones equipped with special sensors can collect multispectral images that, if combined with weather data, ground truth data and expert opinion, can generate algorithms to predict and monitor for the presence of pests, diseases and weeds. The thus generated “Early Disease Warning Systems“ help agronomists and farmers to better understand plant disease and pests, determine the right time to apply crop protection products and thus help farmers make decisions based on scientific data rather than generic recommendations or historical information.

 

Drones are also being used to apply crop protection products. This is especially relevant in developing countries, as farmers currently rely heavily on applying agrochemicals with backpack sprayers and cannot afford the application with tractors or airplanes.

 

Most experts agree that the farming sector is ageing rapidly. Based on my in-field observations I agree: the average age of the head of the household on a farm is 50. Imagine how difficult is for these farmers to spray crop protection products with a sprayer of about 20 kgs in their back during 8 hours in 40°C weather! The introduction of drones can make a real difference here. This innovative application technology could replace one of the most physically demanding jobs and thereby could also motivate rural youth, with an affinity for digital technology, to engage in agriculture in developing countries.

 

BASF consultants hold a training session with smallholder farmers in Colombia. (c) Fernando Mora/BASF

Drones are up to 50 times faster than the typical backpack sprayer, reducing the time and cost spent on spraying. In our experience, drones use up to 90 percent less water than backpack sprayers, helping farmers to conserve vital resources, particularly in areas of water scarcity. And with greater accuracy, there is less waste and less risk of off-target deposition or unintended environmental impact. Due to the targeted application, drones are more efficient in controlling plant diseases compared to backpack spraying.

 

Every farmer, irrespective of the size of the holding, has a right to safety protection as key component of health and wellbeing. Drones represent a unique opportunity to make farm work safer and reduce the potential exposure to agrochemicals. However, currently smallholders cannot afford drones. Indeed, the usage of drones by smallholders in Latin America requires three changes:

  • An operational shift from farmers applying crop protection themselves to farmers utilizing spray service providers. This will also generate additional employment for trained service providers with drones.
  • A technology shift from application with back-pack sprayers to application with drones.
  • A business model shift with an ecosystem of partners, including the farmers, who economically benefit from bringing this technology to the farm.

There are still challenges to overcome. For example. some countries do not yet have regulations around the use of drones, while farmers and potential spray service providers need access to training and equipment — as with conventional crop protection technology, drones need to be used responsibly. But the potential to transform agriculture in low- and middle-income countries makes drones a promising innovation in leveling the field for smallholder farmers worldwide.

 

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