Derek Kruger walks around the hologram image of Orchard SA07/13 and frowns. The report from the drone swarm checking the sugar index of the oranges to determine the best harvesting time has also pointed out a calcium deficiency in the leaves of the north facing rows of trees. The images clearly show the tips of the leaves curling in.
Calcium deficiency is a tricky problem. It can result from many different variables.
Derek looks out of the window of his office above the new packhouse in Birambo, Rwanda, just in time to see an autonomous BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) sprayer drone coming into the self-charging docking station. Farming with tea and vegetables in the mountains of Rwanda has been made possible with the assistance of the latest drone technology which allows them to stay comfortable within the limits of the allotted carbon footprint.
With a sigh he calls up Sarie, the South African agricultural version of Siri. As always, she promptly answers in her well-modulated voice.
“Good morning, Derek. I was wondering when you would ask my advice.”
He cannot resist teasing her a bit. “Actually, I just need you to organize me a cup of coffee. And please use the 2030 beans from our plot in Cameroon.”
“Ah, going for vintage this morning,” she remarks, and almost instantaneously the aroma of freshly grounded beans fills the room. “Well, are you ready now to face your calcium challenge?”
“Yes, please run down all the checks.”
As Sarie talks him through the tests she has already ordered, he looks at the glass screen of his desk. Although paper is coming back in fashion after the hemp industry proved compliance to all sustainability parameters, he prefers his old-fashioned screen reports.
“As you can see, the soil sample collection drone has already fed the sample into the AI-analyzer. There is no issue there, the soil content is good, although the moisture level was a bit lower than expected. The leaf analysis, however, also shows that there are other deficiencies, notably iron and potassium. The dosage applicator reports that the correct nutrient quantities have been measured out and fed into the irrigation system. What would you like me to do?”
Derek smiles. “This one is on me,” he says and activates the satphone on his wrist. Back home in South Africa his son, Paul, answers sleepily.
“Morning son, have you been playing ‘find the bone’ with Robodog in Orchard 13?”
“Yes Dad, how did you know?”
“Easy, there is something wrong with the water feed to the last rows of trees. I believe that dog of yours has been digging and damaging the lines. Get yourself down there and fix it.”
Sarie laughs. “Well Sir, again you have proven that humans can still solve some of the problems caused by them. Would you like a report on the progress with the reforestation program in Ethiopia? The seed pod shooting drones have been performing exceptionally well in the clear weather.” While Sarie drones on about the reforestation program, Derek thinks back to 2023 when he, fresh out of college, had to convince his father to invest in drone technology. He still remembers the list of functions and new technology in the making that he compiled at that time with the help of the relatively primitive AI website of the time, Chat GTP.
SA’s small drones’ market is seeing fast growth, and is estimated to reach $134,5 million by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 22,35% from 2020 to 2025, according to research firm Industry ARC. (16 Sept 2022)
All those technologies became commonplace, but also many more.
- Improved sensors and payloads: Agricultural drones are equipped with advanced sensors and payloads, including hyperspectral and multispectral cameras, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), thermal imaging, and even specialized sensors for measuring soil conditions and crop health. These sensors enable more precise and comprehensive data collection, allowing farmers to make better informed decisions.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning: Integration of AI and machine learning algorithms is becoming more common in agricultural drones. These technologies help in processing the vast amounts of data collected by drones and analyzing it to identify patterns, anomalies, and crop health indicators. AI-powered drones can provide real-time insights and actionable recommendations to farmers.
- Autonomous and swarm capabilities: Drones with autonomous flight capabilities are being developed, enabling them to follow predefined flight paths or execute complex tasks without continuous manual control. Swarm technology, where multiple drones work together collaboratively, is also emerging, allowing for efficient coverage of large areas and coordination in data collection.
- Long-endurance drones: Battery life and flight time are improving, leading to the development of long-endurance drones capable of covering more significant distances and remaining in the air for extended periods. This advancement is particularly valuable for largescale agricultural operations.
- Precision application systems: Agricultural drones are integrated with precision application systems, allowing targeted and localized delivery of fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs. This reduces waste, minimizes environmental impact, and enhances resource efficiency.
- Improved software and analytics platforms: The software that accompanies agricultural drones is evolving, offering user-friendly interfaces, data visualization tools, and analytics platforms. These enhancements help farmers interpret the collected data more effectively to make data-driven decisions.
- Weather and environmental monitoring: Some agricultural drones are equipped with weather and environmental monitoring sensors, providing real-time data on temperature, humidity, wind speed, and other weather-related parameters that influence crop growth.
- Hybrid drones: Hybrid drones that combine features of fixed-wing and multirotor drones are being developed. These hybrid designs offer the benefits of both types, such as long-range coverage and vertical take-off and landing capability.
- Risk management and insurance: The integration of agricultural drones with crop insurance and risk management services is on the rise. Drones provide valuable data for accurate crop yield estimation, damage assessment, and claims processing.
Market.us predicts that the agricultural drones market will exceed USD11,08 billion by 2032 from USD1,7 billion in 2022, with a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21,2% between 2023 and 2032
Derek even provided his father with photographs and company names. It was quite difficult at that time to get permits and licensing to fly drones, and drone companies were delivering “in-the-box” solutions by deploying their own drones and collecting the information or delivering the services farmers needed.
Getting involved in the drone business at that time was indeed a wise decision and it opened the door to Africa for the Krugers. The growth in the industry was even more remarkable than the most optimistic projections.
The use of drones between 2023 and 2030 shot up with much more than the predicted 41% and now, in 2040, farming without drones would be unthinkable. There was a time before global control standards were agreed upon when drones were crowding air space to such an extent that many calls went up for the banning of all info-drones in favor of satellite information services.
It was a valid point, but then again, no satellite can give you the close monitoring, physical sample collection, and even the mobility you need to manage today’s complex farming activities, Derek thinks, while strapping himself into his Repressed Sound High Performance transporting drone which will take him to the next stop on his list of personal visits, the freshwater kelp farm in Lake Kivu.
There seems to be a problem with the communication of the underwater drones harvesting the kelp. A human touch is needed.