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Data, drones can improve local agriculture

An image of DJI product manager Ruan Botha

RUAN BOTHA Innovative solutions are required for long-term sustainability and growth

3rd May 2024

     

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Smart technology, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned vehicles, can counter various challenges in the agriculture sector, boosting productivity, reducing costs and assisting in preserving precious resources, says drone technology company DJI product manager Ruan Botha.

Innovative solutions are required for long-term sustainability and growth amid the host of challenges impacting on the agriculture industry, he asserts.

The current drought impacting on Southern Africa’s farming community, as well as the effects of climate change, unprecedented inflation and rising energy costs, will drive farmers to look more aggressively at solutions to adapt their practices based on high-quality data, Botha says.

In addition to potential relief packages to help minimise losses for farmers, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has already begun enhancing research and development to improve logistics, safety and the quality of agricultural products.

Some of the projects identified include more effective management of pests and disease, irrigation schemes and an accelerated transfer of technology to enhance the efficiencies of crop production, animal health and management of natural resources.

A core function in this process will be the ability to assess, monitor and respond to changes across large stretches of land, often in difficult terrain.

“The ability to rapidly cover great distances and collect data, such as photographic and infrared images, as well soil, air and water samples, will be increasingly reliant on AI-enabled systems and unmanned vehicles,” Botha says.

However, a shortage of skilled drone pilots and maintenance technicians, especially those with a working understanding of the agriculture sector, presents a challenge when looking to deploy drones.

Botha explains that there is significant potential for digitalisation to enhance agriculture prospects, including data management, machine learning, automation and drone-based applications. These technologies can help mitigate the risks posed to crops and livestock by shifting environmental patterns.

He adds that trade agency the International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa observes that there are very few barriers to bringing new equipment to the South African market, as equipment such as planters, sprayers and tiling equipment already enter duty-free, provided the same product is not manufactured in the country.

He explains that with drones, equipment needs to be acquired, operated and maintained, and the data needs to be collected, interpreted and presented in ways that can lead to better decision- making.

This presents enormous opportunity to develop a new technology subsector that ensures sustainability and expansion of agriculture, resulting in food security and bringing down food prices for all consumers, as well as creating jobs and skills development opportunities in a fast-growing industry, Botha concludes.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor

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