Drones finding their place in the environment


Climate change is an irrefutable fact as the globe gets warmer year-on-year. It is therefore crucial to accurately analyse its effects and gather data. In addition, the global population continues to grow, translating into the need for improved agriculture. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, now find themselves above the arctic monitoring ice sheets and above farms analysing crops.


This was one of the topics presented at the Drones and Digital Aviation Conference held at Emperors Palace late last year.

Drone applications specialist, Louise Jupp, presented on, “Drones as key to driving greater productivity and sustainability in agriculture”. Jupp highlighted the importance of greater productivity and sustainability in agriculture stating, “In 1960, a farmer fed 26 people; today, a farmer feeds 155 people and by 2050, a farmer will need to feed over 265 people.” These stats highlight the need for efficient and fast farming. Drones are finding their place in agriculture through their access of information, clarity and control, efficiency over man power, evolving capabilities and relative ease of use.

Jupp stated Mozambique has seen a 41% increase in crop production and 55% water productivity increase by using drones for crop management. “In South Africa, a drone’s ability to image and survey crops translated to a quick response to an iron deficiency, saving R40 000 worth of yield.” Uganda has seen a 60% reduction in pesticide use, generated incremental annual profits of $2 150, had a ten to 20% reduction in losses from pests and eliminated 40 to 50% loss of yields all due to drone integration with agriculture. Furthermore, there is a 15-35% reduction in nitrogen and chemical use/waste, operation/logistical cost, weed control inputs and fertilizer costs. In improving land use efficiency, cotton yields and annual wine production ranges between ten to 20% and there is a $487 average revenue increase per acre of corn.

Additionally, senior director for public safety, Romeo Durscher, states that in agriculture, 3D field mapping and soil analysis with drones has created an increase in uptake rate of 75% and cut planting costs by 85%.

Jupp believes the future of drone work in agriculture is animal husbandry (drones assessing and attending to the animal), real-time analytics and response, autonomous monitoring and reporting and collection and delivery of produce. Juppsaid “Drones are not the ‘silver bullet’, but they are providing major opportunities for transforming traditional farming practices to improve productivity and yields.”

Braam Botha, chief operating officer for UAV Industries, presented on how drones are being used for environmental purposes in more creative ways. He stated that drones in marine conservation provide new insight as he spoke about the Ocean Alliances “Snotbot”, a drone used to monitor whales’ blowholes which reveals information about a whale’s diet and environment.

The latest innovation in life saving utilising drones is the Little Ripper drone, which incorporates artificial intelligence (AI) that detects sharks, whales, dolphins and rays. It carries a payload of an inflatable lifesaving raft and a camera with AI. It also has a built-in speaker to communicate with those in distress. Find out more about the Little Ripper drone here: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/videos/udh-group-displays-little-ripper/. Botha concluded his presentation by looking into the future of life saving: drones that are capable of airlifting people.

“Combatting climate change with drones” was the title of a presentation by Dr Debbie Jewitt, an ecosystem ecologist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. In the context of climate change, drones are playing a crucial role in our ability to effectively analyse and respond to natural disasters, deforestation and rising sea levels, she said.

After hurricanes, drones are playing a vital role with first responders and utility companies due to their aerial perspective and ability to reach inaccessible areas. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States approves emergency response drone flights following natural disasters through its Special Government Interest (SGI) process. DJI unlock their geofencing restrictions (DJI software disabling drones to operate within five kilometres of prohibited air space) for drones operating in disaster struck areas as well. In 2018, this was seen in the United States after Hurricane Florence as the North Carolina Department of Transport flew over 260 drone missions to assess damage, prioritize efforts on the ground and plan safe routes for recovery workers.

In areas of deforestation, Jewitt spoke about DroneSeed, a company that is using drone swarms to facilitate restoration efforts by planting trees in areas affected by invasive alien species, fire, drought or disease. She said, “With their drones capable of carrying 25.8 kg of seed, drones easily plant more seeds than humans. In addition to restoration efforts, drones can be used to monitor habitats, monitor and track species and improve environmental communication and education.

Similarly, drones can monitor glacial melting. “Drones are bridging the gap between what scientists can measure and measurements by satellites” Jewitt explained. As scientists make measurements in the centimetres and satellites make measurements in the hundreds of metres, drones are able to take measurements in between these figures. she concluded by saying, “Drones can help us to understand what is happening with global change, how fast it is happening and helps us to mitigate the effects.”