Aerial Robotics and Agriculture: Opportunities for the Majority World

The majority of studies and articles on the use of drones/UAVs for agriculture seem to focus on examples and opportunities in the US, Europe or Japan. These reports talk about the needs for large scale aerial surveys over massive farms, machine learning algorithms for automated crop detection, and the development of sophisticated forecasting models to inform decisions at the very micro level. This is the realm of precision agriculture. But what about small-holder and family farms in the Majority World? Do flying robots make sense for them? Yes, in some cases, but not in the same way that this technology makes sense for large farms in highly industrialized countries.

First things first, smallholder and family farms won’t have as much need for long-range fixed-wing UAVs as ranchers do in the US. According to this FAO study (PDF), smallholder farms typically cover less than 0.02 square kilometers. Secondly, these farms do not necessarily need access to very high-resolution, orthorectified mosaics or fancy 3D models. Mosaics and 3D models require data processing software; and software requires a computer to run said software, not to mention having time to learn how to use said software. Without software, a farmer could still upload her aerial images to the cloud for processing but that requires a reliable and relatively fast Internet connection. Also, data processing means having to store that data before and after processing. So now the farmer needs software, a computer and a hard disk (or two for backup). 

I’m not suggesting that very high-resolution orthorectified mosaics, 3D models and multi-spectral sensors cannot add value to smallholder and family farms. Of course they can. Farmers have always needed accurate as well as up-to-date information on their crops and on the environmental conditions of the land on which their crops grow. I’m just suggesting a more practical approach to begin with. Simply getting a live video feed from a bird’s eye view can already reveal patterns that show everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that aren’t apparent at eye level.

At the end of the day, farming is an input-output problem. Local farmers can get a live video feed from the sky to subsequently reduce their inputs—water and pesticides—while maintaining the same output. But lets unpack that a bit. Once a farmer detects an irrigation problem from the video feed, they don’t need an other piece of robotics tech to intervene. They can easily see where the drone is hovering and simply walk over to the area with basic tools to intervene as needed. Smallholder and family farms do not have access to variable-rate sprayers and other fancy tractor tools that can take precision data and respond with precision interventions. So very high-res mosaics and 3D models may add little value in the context of smallholder farms in developing countries.


Of course, some farmers may prefer to pay consultants or local companies to carry out these aerial surveys instead of leasing or owning a drone and carrying out the surveys themselves. In fact, some companies actually found it too “tedious to teach farmers how to use the drones they had made. Instead, they decided to focus on providing the much-needed service of mapping out farms and sites” (1). In stark contrast, my team & I at WeRobotics have really enjoyed training local partners in Nepal and Tanzania. We don’t find it tedious at all but rather highly rewarding. Building local capacity around the use of appropriate robotics solutions goes to the heart of our mission.

This explains why we’re creating local robotics labs—we call them Flying Labs—to transfer the skills and technologies that our partners need to scale the positive impact of their local efforts. So we’re especially keen to work with smallholder and family farms so they can use robotics solutions to improve their yields. They could lease small drones from the labs for a nominal fee, and I’m willing to bet that some savvy young men and women working on these farms will be keen to learn a new set of skills that could lead to an increase in income. We’re also keen to work with local drone consultants or local companies to enable them to expand their services to include agriculture. The key, either way, is to design and deliver effective trainings to local farmers, consultants and/or companies while providing each with long-term support through the Flying Labs. 

Thanks to colleagues from WeRobotics for feedback on an earlier version of this postI’m keen to receive additional input from iRevolution readers. 

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