Drones, technology and food security

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The Aerobotics leaf-by-leaf drone scouting application will detect problems impacting crops and also pecan nut trees quickly and accurately. Photos: Supplied
The Aerobotics leaf-by-leaf drone scouting application will detect problems impacting crops and also pecan nut trees quickly and accurately. Photos: Supplied

As one of the oldest industries globally, farming is not often associated with cutting-edge technology, drones, and artificial intelligence. However, this is rapidly changing as the sector is seeking new ways to optimise their crop yields, and South African farmers, in particular, are at the forefront of some of these global innovations.

Farmers in SA are seeing massive increases in crop yields. They are using less water and land to achieve this, according to Agri SA, the major industry representative of the agricultural value chain in the country.

Any farmer that wants to farm on a commercial basis, effectively and efficiently can't achieve anything without tech, says Christo van der Rheede Agri SA's Deputy Executive Director.

The rapid shift to technology in the agricultural sector includes the increased use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—the technical term. Aerobotics, an early-stage agritech company, is pioneering the use of drones to gather and process pest infestations and diseases in tree crops and orchards.

Farmers pay Aerobotics a subscription to monitor the size and health of trees, provide fruit counts and data about fruit size and colour. This analysis is done using machine learning and artificial intelligence to process the imagery and provide insights to farmers.

Agri SA's CEO Omri van Zyl says agritech is developing rapidly. Farmers increasingly used precision farming methods, such as the data from drone imagery, to scan their crops, decide when to spray pesticides and predict crops estimates. In the future, he foresees drones will water and spray fields and orchards.

Crucially, such precision farming is aiding food security in the country as farmers turn to technology to do more with less. While nationally, the country is food secure and is a net exporter of food, South Africa is still food insecure at the household level as not all households have access to adequate food. Almost 20% of South African households have inadequate or severely inadequate access to food, according to Statistics SA.

Van Zyl highlights that food security does not just refer to the amount of food a country produces but the availability of the product to reach consumers, its quality and its affordability. He adds that drone technology and artificial intelligence analysis to detect disease and pest infestation is at an early stage to assist in bringing down farming and production costs and improving the quality and availability of crops.

The agricultural sector is also a crucial cog in the country's economic output, contributing 1.9% in 2019 to gross domestic product (GDP), more than 800 000 jobs, and a key foreign currency earner for South Africa's exports. The improvement in crop production is expected to see this sector expand in the next few years.

A Precision Forestry Market report in 2019 shows that Aerobotics is one of the early adopters and key players using technology in the $3.9 billion (R72 billion) forestry industry globally.

Aerobotics, poised for growth, received in May last year a R100 million investment by Naspers Foundry. The funding round, which Naspers Foundry led, was finalised earlier this year, culminating in an investment worth $17 million (R240 million) along with other investors. This leaves the path open for local farmers and Aerobotics to play an even bigger role in agritech and food security in SA and internationally.

Naspers Foundry is a R1.4 billion investment vehicle that takes an innovative approach to grow SA's technology sector.

This post is sponsored by Naspers and created by BrandStudio24 for News24.

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