The use of drones in agriculture is becoming increasingly common as these unmanned aircraft are proving to be a valuable tool used in precision farming – a technique involving the analysis and consideration of several factors to determine the correct inputs for maximum outcome.

Farmers around the world are under pressure to boost the efficiency of resource management in the face of tough economic conditions. At the same time, the “farm-to-plate” phenomenon has seen a greater push for better traceability of food products as consumers are concerned about the sources of the foods and how they were produced.

This is according to Kopano Tholo, drone expert at ITOO Special Risks, who explains that drones are becoming more popular in agriculture as part of a holistic sustainable farming plan. They can be used to help farmers streamline processes while providing important information on their crops through data and topography analytics.

“Agriculture in the modern era is all about speed and precision and over the past few years, precision farming has seen significant growth across the globe. Today, a considerable portion of new farm equipment contains some form of precision farming elements,” says Tholo.

“Essentially, precision farming comes down to doing the right thing in the right place at the right time with the right amount. This results in higher profitability, better sustainability and greater productivity while saving time.”

He explains that drones are used to fulfil a variety of tasks in precision farming, ranging from soil sampling and crop field analysis to planting and pesticide application. Drones in agriculture can be combined with various imaging technologies that provide farmers with temporal and site-specific information about crop health, fungal infections or growth bottlenecks.

The use of drones in agricultural practices in South Africa, specifically for functions such as spraying pesticides, has gained significant attention in recent years. Traditionally, crops are typically sprayed from fixed-wing planes, microlights or helicopters. However, drone technology has proven to be more efficient for this task, as they can get much closer to crops than other aircraft.

“This obviously enables more precise pesticide application and allows for close to 100% of field areas to be sprayed, whereas challenging terrain often prevents other types of aircraft from being as efficient,” says Tholo.

The drone market in South Africa has grown substantially in recent years and the country is currently the biggest user of drone technology on the continent. Research firm Industry ARC recently revealed that the local market for small drones is growing fast and is set to reach R2,5-billion by 2025, with an annual growth rate of 22,35% between 2020 and 2025.

Currently, the biggest user of drone technology in South Africa is the mining sector with drones used for applications such as safety, inventory monitoring and 3D modelling. This is followed by the film and entertainment industry and the agricultural sector where drones are increasingly used for precision farming.

Tholo notes that the uptake of drones by South African farmers was recently showcased at the recent Nampo Harvest Day 2024 exhibition, which was themed “Agriculture in a Digital Age” and highlighted harnessing the power of digital tools and platforms in agriculture.

“The South African agricultural sector in South Africa is on a transformative journey as local farmers increasingly start to leverage digital solutions to overcome traditional challenges. Drones are at the forefront of this revolution and can help farmers unlock huge opportunities to enhance productivity, optimise resource utilisation and improve livelihoods,” says Tholo.

However, buying an agricultural drone can be a significant investment, with some models priced at upwards of R200 000. This means that protecting this investment should be a key consideration for any farmer considering taking a leap into the modern era.

“Accidents happen, so it is important to guard against the challenges and risks associated with drone operations. Drone insurance is a safety net that can protect a farmer from damage to or loss of a drone, ensuring that they can continue operating seamlessly without incurring substantial repair or replacement costs,” says Tholo.

“Additionally, drone insurance also provides owners and operators with protection against third-party liabilities. In a dynamic operating environment, drone accidents can result in bodily injuries or property damage to third parties. Insurance coverage will protect farmers against legal liabilities arising from such incidents, providing peace of mind and allowing them to focus on their core business of agriculture.”