In a world where most of the drone coverage is on stupid mishaps and invasions of privacy perpetrated by owners of commercial drones and weaponized drones conducting lethal airstrikes, it’s refreshing to learn that drones are actually being put to use in helpful, meaningful ways. Take the scientists at the University of Nairobi, who along with researchers at the International Potato Centre (yes, apparently this is a thing and it sounds AMAZING), are conducting a pilot project in East Africa to gather important crop data utilizing drones.
Already in Tanzania, a drone has been deployed and successfully identified 14 varieties of sweet potatoes in Ukiriguru Research Institute in Mwanza. Collecting crop statistics has many agricultural, scientific and political benefits – namely, it helps researchers address food security and shortages, plan for better crop cultivation and make wiser policy decisions in regards to agriculture. Employing drones to do this collecting is both cheaper and more efficient, with drones being able to cover a much wider range of land faster with quality sensors that can aggregate accurate statistics while avoiding weather and climate disruptions that plague satellites.
“The drone maps everything on the ground, after which the data is process by specialized software and scientists can then zero in on their area of interest,” said Elijah Cheruiyot, research associate at Kenya’s International Potato Centre (still cool). With the quality images that drones can capture to create expansive maps of a given crop, scientists can identify land that may be lacking water or a batch of diseased crops in attempts to save the crop or improve conditions in order to facilitate a thriving crop output. Particularly with disease, drones have been proven to have a keen eye for detecting something afoul two weeks before it becomes apparent to humans.
Discoveries like these were achieved by Octocopter, a drone locally assembled with eight multi-rotors and a 1kg camera equipped with specialized sensors. Powered with a rechargeable battery that offers 10 minutes of flight time per session, it may not boast as much power and flight time as a fixed wing drone, but the Octocopter’s design enables it to land easily anywhere, without the need for a runway like a fixed wing model. Still, Cheruiyot notes that the Octocopter can cover 20 acres a day.
With the pilot program monitoring sweet potatoes proving to be such a success, the University of Nairobi plans to offer courses and training in this drone statistic gathering system, advocating its widespread usage and the development of technologies that will hopefully evolve and improve the process. The ultimate goal of using drones to gather statistics on crops is to increase the yield, with the data gathered from one season’s worth of crops being applied and tweaked to usher in a more bountiful harvest the next season. With drones like the Octocopter, a green thumb may no longer be required to produce a sprawling field of green.