Can Drones Assist With Food Security? Here Are the Facts.
Updated: Feb 27
Drones and Food Security: Challenges and Solutions
Dr Jonathan Lloyd DSc Bsc(Hons) MSc
Drones, also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are being increasingly used throughout the agricultural industry to help provide mapping, diagnostics, aids to farm decision-making, and for the targeted application of inputs. Agriculture is a major market for drones and is expected to reach over $480m in 2027.
There is significant pressure to produce enough food for an increasing global population. A number of countries remain food insecure, while the global Covid-19 pandemic is likely to drive in a rise in food insecurity in many countries. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), in 2019, 678.1 million people, or 8.9% of the world's population, were deemed to be undernourished. This is expected to rise to 841.4 million or 9.8% of the population by 2030.
Industry professionals and humanitarian workers alike are beginning to ask key questions such as,
- How can drones contribute to food security?
- What are the limitations to their use?
- How are some of these challenges being overcome in practice?
The development and use of drones in agriculture
Drones are often associated with and used within precision agriculture - a set of technologies that combines sensors, information systems, enhanced machinery, and informed management to optimize production by accounting for variability and uncertainties within agricultural systems. The targeted use of production inputs site-specifically within a field, which allows better use of resources and more effective treatment. This can help maintain the quality of the environment while improving the sustainability of the food supply.
Drones offer a wide range of benefits for farmers in managing crops, pastureland, and animals. Drones can transform the ways smallholder farmers make key decisions about the use of inputs, effectively maintain crops and ensure and pest control. They can also help small farmers secure land rights by mapping farm boundaries and enhancing agricultural research. By providing “a bird’s eye perspective,” smallholder farmers can determine how well their fields are doing and what steps they need to take to ensure a good yield. Drones can be used for small and fragmented land as well as difficult geographical conditions and topography. It is simple to process the data derived by drones on laptops and mobile phones.
First and foremost, and constituting a major part of the services provided by Drone Commander Australia, drones are incredibly effective in applying inputs efficiently. Farmers can optimise spraying of pesticides in areas that need treatment, and significantly reduce the amount of product used. The reduced spraying height of drones compared with conventional manned aerial spraying significantly reduces the risk of spray drift, while drones take advantage of air accelerated downwards by the rotors, similar to the functioning of a helicopter, to accelerate droplets downwards. Additionally, drones eliminate issues of soil compaction inevitable with the use of ground sprayers. In countries such as Australia, which are prone to animal and insect plagues, as well as extreme weather events, drones are incredibly effective in maximising crop yield. This is primarily due to the precision application that drones can provide, the cost-effectiveness of deploying a drone instead of larger machinery, and the ability of drones to apply a wide range of treatments depending on relevant crop issues. Drones also improve application timeliness, reduce the need for skilled labour and significantly reduce hand-held sprayer operators’ exposure to harmful pesticides. In countries like China and India, they have essentially enabled farmers to leap from hand-held applicators, skipping vehicle-mounted machines. Unmanned remote-controlled helicopters have already been spraying rice fields in Japan since the early 1990s where they have proved suitable for spraying many of the countries steep, inaccessible, and often small-scale farms. This use of drones for crop spraying is being replicated on many smallholder farms found in developing countries.
Small-scale subsistence farming boundaries are often of irregular shape, but can be managed by using more economic small drones that produce very high-resolution images at low altitude. Where satellites struggle or are unavailable or unaffordable, drones can often do the job at a lower cost. The images taken by a drone can be up to 44 times better than satellite images and in terms of resolution, drone cameras offer over 40,000 times better resolution. Remote sensing using drones can provide farmers with information about potential crop yields, nutrient and water status as well as greenhouse gas emissions from livestock grazing on their land.
Limitations and challenges in using drones
Despite their advantages, some barriers prevent the adoption of drones in food-insecure countries. The biggest challenge for small scale farmers is cost. Although prices are falling, the cost of drone services is still too high for most smallholder farmers in developing countries to afford.
There are other cultural factors some rural communities can be unfamiliar with drones and hesitant about their use in the community. Access to data and concerns over issues relating to the ownership of data also impact on smallholders.
As a solution, smallholder farmers can combine with others close in cooperation in the interest of sharing costs. Drone operators can also collaborate with development organizations with funds to increase access of drones to low resourced farmers.
There is also a lack of knowledge and trained operators in many food-insecure countries. Launched in 2017, Africa's first drone academy in Malawi is teaching students to create drones that could deliver medical supplies, monitor crops, or map disease outbreaks. The academy plans to train 150 students by 2021 to build and pilot drones for work in a range of industries including agriculture.
Due to a sharp increase in drone use internationally, countries are struggling to incorporate drones into their aviation regulatory frameworks and there is a lack of legal clarity over the commercial use of drones in many countries.
For example, Kiasha Nagiah, a Senior Associate at Norton Rose Fulbright in South Africa, notes that “in South Africa, many users are operating drones illegally because of the cost and complexity in compliance.” Apart from provisions provided by the Civil Avaiation Safety Authority in Australia, there is limited legislation and regulation of drones in place, creating some confusion and limiting widespread drone-use.
Where regulations exist, commercial and non-profit operations are often significantly more heavily regulated than private operations. Drone regulations, or lack thereof, can also restrict the use of drones for agricultural purposes. The lack of established legislation can inhibit the wider deployment of spraying drones on farms in developed, as well as developing, countries. This is due to either rules failing to keep up with technology or simply outright bans on all aerial applications – as is the case within the EU. While many countries are catching up by including drone use in civil aviation law, the difficulty is compliance with spraying regulations. In many countries chemical applications are tightly controlled and, in most circumstances, this will require changes to the products’ registered use.
Case studies of drone use to improve food security
There are numerous initiatives to encourage and develop the use of drones across a range of food-insecure countries and communities in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Drones are becoming extremely important in modernising African agriculture and in the adoption of precision farming across the continent. For farmers in Africa, markets are largely informal, farm extension and advice is delivered face-to-face, and farm data either non-existent or completely off-grid. Many of the successes of digitalisation in agriculture have been on the back of mechanisation for example sensors on tractors. However, smartphone penetration and 3G networks are sweeping across rural areas, and this opens a wealth of opportunities to develop data-driven agriculture where drones can play a significant role.
In Africa, the benefits of precision agriculture include improved food security through increases in water and nutrient use efficiency and the timelier management of activities such as weed control. Precision agriculture has reduced input costs both commercial and smallholder farming in Africa. Precision agriculture has helped to reduce the costs of inputs in both commercial and smallholder farming in Africa.
Ethiopia’s Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA) is using drones alongside satellites to help improve the country’s food security. In the country of 108 million people, agriculture accounts for 45% of the economy, 80% of employment and three-quarters of total export earnings. Subsistence farming, small plots and limited access to fertilizer mean that most farmers struggle. The ATA is using satellites for soil mapping and drones to aid farmers in assessing the condition of larger crop fields. The aim is to enable farmers to grow larger crops by focusing their efforts where they are needed most while having a constant overview of their entire crop. This project aims to double the income of five million farmers within the next five years, and could expand further if successful.The ATA uses satellite soil mapping, toll-free numbers, drones, and an in-house consultancy to help farmers. Drones are also helping small farmers with selling their crop and accessing markets. Potential buyers can zoom in on a map of Ethiopia, search for a farm by area and commodity, watch a drone video of the crop to assess its condition and call the farmers directly to purchase the crops. Small farmers have been clustered together so that they grow the same crop using the same methods enabling them to leverage economies of scale.
In India, there are over 35 drone start-ups that are working to raise the technological standards and reduce the prices of agricultural drones. The Maharashtra state government has been looking to work together with drone companies and the World Economic Forum (WEF) to boost agricultural production using drones. Timothy Reuter, the WEF Portfolio Head for Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace, has said that with farmers suffering from drought, drone mapping can be used to improve irrigation systems and agricultural yields. The cost of drones is a challenge within the country. It is extremely expensive to hire an urban drone team to survey a small field in a remote location. According to Dr Ruchi Saxena, Director of India Flying Labs, part of WeRobotics, in the tribal villages of the Dahanu-Palghar belt in Maharashtra farmers are being educated in applying advanced and sustainable technologies to their farmlands as part of the project.
Prices for agricultural drones, which can be used by farmers for soil analysis, surveying farms, planting, spraying and irrigation purposes, start at around USD 2,000 and go up to USD 15,000. Maintenance costs can also be high, and replacement batteries expensive. Also, the lack of trained pilots is a major restraining factor in the growth of the UAV market in India.
The project plans to conduct drone mapping of one or two entire districts in Maharashtra, the largest drone deployment ever conducted in India. It will also support the government in developing a framework for addressing key policy and coordination issues related to the government’s use of drones to meet agriculture needs, such as better market information and predictive pricing for smallholder farmers. As drones become smaller, more reliable, and more affordable, their role in such projects - on a continent prone to natural disasters and dotted with isolated communities - seems certain to increase.
Drones are of benefit in a wide range of farming systems. For example, a project has introduced drones to two Amerindian communities in the North Rupununi, Guyana. Following consultations on the benefits and potential dangers associated with drone operation, it successfully built and flew drones over traditional swidden or slash and burn agriculture plots of various ages with indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples suggested that drones can be important tools in their natural resource management efforts and in planning for long-term food security.
Drones offer considerable advantages over traditional machinery in precision application, and have the potential to contribute significantly to food security worldwide. Additionally, drones provide significant advantage over satellite imagery for small-scale farmers and can therefore make a positive contribution to tackling the problems of food insecurity and improve the livelihoods of smallholders and rural communities. The nature of agriculture in many food-insecure countries means that there are unique challenges in exploiting this technology. Over the next few years, drones will play a greater and greater role in improving agricultural productivity and will make a significant contribution to achieving food security across the globe.
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