Unmanned Agriculture

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An unidentified object hovers over Nairobi's Nyayo Stadium during 2014's Jamuhuri Day celebrations. In a country that has had it's fair share of terror attacks, this sighting is met not so much with wonder as anxiety. The Chief of the Kenya Defense Forces immediately sets out to find who is behind it. It turns out to be a Kenyan media house capturing some aerial shots of the proceedings in advance of the President's arrival. Orders follow that the device be landed immediately. It is brought safely to the ground. What was the cause for all the fuss? A drone. Referred to in other quarters as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). A vehicle that could drive Kenyan agriculture into the future.

Deadly Beginnings

Drones were first used in combat when the Austrian military attacked the enemy Italian city of Venice using balloons laden with explosives during the First World War. But being entirely at the whim of the wind, many exploded over Austrian territory. Since then the technology has been refined and is slowly beginning to shed its war skin; finding new uses in film and photography, as delivery bots for ecommerce, and even as children's toys. Their advanced reconnaissance feature, in particular, is being looked at as a possible solution to one of Kenya's most pressing agricultural challenges - getting the right information to farmers at the right time.

The Power Of Information

Google's Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, following a trip to North Korea concluded, "The power of information is underrated."  Sentiments that have been echoed by Lawrence Nderu, an assistant lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

"Information is a game changer when it comes to agriculture and a lot of our farmers do not have the right information at the right time, or worse, are misguided, which impacts negatively on their farming practices."

According to the 2012 National Agriculture Sector Extension Policy (NASEP), in Kenya, one agriculture extension officer serves over 1,000 farmers - far below the preferred ratio of one to 400. Lawrence is part of a team of researchers, which includes Dr. Nicolas Jouandeau from the University of Paris, working under the project Drones-For-Agriculture. The team is developing drones that use cutting-edge automation and imaging technology. These drones will provide farmers with state-of-the-art information services thus affording them the benefit of precision in their farming activities.

Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture is a modern farming method, which allows farmers to collect precise data about their crops, and use that knowledge to customise how they cultivate each section of their land.

“We start by collecting information from farmers and farms in different parts of the country, and put it up in an online database that we can use as a reference point. We will then deploy the drones on an as-needed basis to farms from time to time to collect data - like the height of crops, flowering pattern, pest infestation, and so on - and cross-reference this information with what already exists in the database” says Lawrence. Who adds, "This way, farmers and Government extension officers can draw up accurate patterns on expected yields and which parts of the farms need what type of pesticides."





Drones can map out areas that are affected by disease and then target the insecticide spray to these areas

A Working Experiment

The maize growing areas of Kitale, an agricultural town in the Northern Rift Valley, will be the testing ground for the drones designed by the JKUAT-based team. They are targeting a group of large-scale commercial farmers, and with good reason.

A single drone costs KES 1 million ($USD 10,000)  to fabricate, a pretty hefty sum for smaller-scale or subsistent farmers. Through partnerships with local investors and farmers' cooperative societies, the researchers foresee the technology becoming more affordable over time.

Each drone can carry about one kilogramme of equipment and fly over a 10km radius at a speed of 10 metres per second. Though the project is still in it's experimental stages, the researchers expect to scale it up and package it as viable venture both for farmers and investors in the near future.

Flying Into Strong Legal Headwinds

As is often the case, legislation lags behind technology. The situation is no different in Kenya where as of February 2015 the operation of UAVs was banned, by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), except for those with express permission from the Ministry of Defense.

Invasion of privacy is one red flag that has been raised time and again. Which, though possible, Kenyan photographer Mwangi Kirubi, who has used drones to take some breathtaking photos, thinks would be improbable. "UAVs are very noisy. Most have fixed 5mm lenses (very wide), there isn’t much detail one can get from even 30 metres above ground...it is hard to spy on someone without their knowledge"

Another key concern is national and internal security. Events in the UK underscore the gravity of this concern. Heat-seeking drones, which are normally used by law enforcement to find cannabis farms are now being used by tech-savvy criminals to find and loot those very farms.

It is obvious that taking a step back to create a proper legal framework under which drones will operate in Kenya is a wise move. While this has impeded the exploitation of this technology for agriculture it will certainly not stop it. The drones are here to stay; the drones are the future.

Read more about drones here on Cleanleap Drones, balloons or satellites - which one will lead to $300 Billion in growth?