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The State of Drones for Agricultural Development

By Catholic Relief Services on August 2, 2017

Could Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, be a missing piece in addressing the global yield gap? One ICTforAg breakout session, “The State of Drones for Agricultural Development,” addressed potential benefits and current challenges of embracing a drone-friendly future in the fields. Presenters included:

The Benefits of Drones for Ag

Drones have the potential to transform the ways smallholder farmers make key decisions. In addition to securing land rights to farmers by mapping farm boundaries and enhancing agricultural research, drones can focus farmers’ efforts and resources in the field.

Drones can pinpoint key areas of crop stress faster and more efficiently than a farmer or extension agent could through timely field monitoring or random sampling. Farmers are able to identify areas of concern earlier and more precisely, which in turn increases the likelihood of success from an adequate intervention.

Farmers also save money by treating areas of concern more precisely with costly inputs and eliminating costs related to broad interventions on an entire field. When layered with weather and climatic information, drones can help low resourced farmers anticipate rainy or dry periods and make better decisions regarding pesticides, watering, and fertilizers.

Drones also help empower smallholder farmers with more information about their fields. By providing farmers with “a bird’s eye perspective,” smallholder farmers are able to determine how well their fields are doing and what steps they need to take to ensure a good yield.

Farmers gain power when they have more information, and organizations operating drone programs should ensure farmers understand how and what information the drones collect.

Images and maps collected from farmers’ fields should be made accessible to farmers, ideally simultaneously during the collection process, to ensure the farmer is engaged throughout the process. To make this feasible, operators should consider using mapping technology that doesn’t rely on Internet connections.

Current UAV Challenges

Using UAVs to increase agricultural productivity of low resourced farmers is not without its challenges. The biggest challenge, unsurprisingly, is cost. Although the price has decreased substantially over the past few years, the cost of UAV services is still too high for most smallholder farmers in developing countries to afford.

However, there is an emerging market for UAV services in developing agriculture. Medium to large-scale farmers are likely more willing and able to pay for drone services, and smallholder farmers can combine with others close in cooperation to reduce costs for the individual smallholder farmer. UAV operators can also collaborate with development organizations with funds to increase access of drones to low resourced farmers.

Cultural awareness and government regulations of UAVs can also hinder the use of UAVs in addressing the agricultural yield gap. Some rural communities can be unfamiliar with UAVs and understandably hesitant about their use in the community.

Organizations operating drones are encouraged to work with communities to facilitate buy-in and understanding of their use and benefits to farmers.

Government UAV regulations, or lack thereof, can also restrict the use of drones for agricultural purposes. Approximately 77% of African countries lack drone regulations, which can make it difficult for organizations promoting drone use to operate.

One best practice experts shared to address this challenge, however, is to secure a letter from the government Ministry related to agriculture or technology permitting the use of drones for agricultural use.

A Drone-Friendly Future

A future of agricultural drones and shrinking yield gaps in agricultural fields around the world is on the horizon. Now we need to ensure the services are accessible and demand-driven from the needs of smallholder and low resourced farmers.

A first step is to use drones more widely in our work.

Presentation experts suggested drone operations include a wider range of services, including soil testing, to provide immediate recommendations and next steps for farmers’ concerns.

By Emily Johnson, Graduate Student Intern, Bureau of Food Security, USAID

Join a World Bank Webinar on Drones for Agriculture

The World Bank’s Agriculture Global Practice is excited to invite you to a webinar series on Internet of Things for Agriculture held every other Tuesday. The series features a 45 minute presentation of the new technology, and 15 minutes of Q&A with the innovators using it in the field.

Register now to attend the next webinar on August 8th, featuring ThirdEye’s low-cost flying drone sensors that have near-infrared and visual light cameras. These sensors can show crop stress ten days before the human eye can see them, improving resource management decisions for smallholder farmers.

Contact Hyea Won Lee to participate in future webinars on other ICTforAg technologies.

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Catholic Relief Services (CRS) provides humanitarian aid and development across the globe by responding to major emergencies, fighting disease and poverty, and nurturing peaceful and just societies. For almost 75 years CRS has assisted people and organizations on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality. CRS seeks out and assists the most poor and vulnerable overseas.
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