Drone spraying crops in South Africa
(Getty Images)
  • A second drone spraying license has been awarded by South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority.
  • This certification allows highly specialised drones to spray crops with fertilisers, insecticides, and ripening agents.
  • And while the start-up costs are high – with drones retailing for over R220,000 – the technology promises to be cost-effective over the long run.
  • It’s especially beneficial for smaller farms which often lack the funds to deploy a light aircraft.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The use of unmanned aerial aircrafts – in this case, drones – as cost-effective crop dusters is expanding throughout South Africa, after a slow initial start.

Fitted with GPS navigation systems and hovering around two metres above the ground, these specially equipped drones are now offering small-scale farmers a cheaper alternative to plane-based insecticide and fungicide applications.

Using drones to spray crops is a new method of dusting in South Africa, with the first license being awarded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 2019.

Watch | South Africa’s first crop-spraying drones can legally fly from today – saving farmers millions

And while consistent use of microlights and helicopters has protected crops from disease, the costs associated with deploying piloted aircrafts continue to work against small-scale farmers in remote parts of the country. Traditional crop-dusting methods also lack precision and risk overspray, in which neighbouring farms or unprepared crops are inadvertently doused with pesticides.

Similarly, the issue of uneven application causes problems with artificial ripening processes. This is when chemicals are sprayed onto the crop – usually fruit or sugarcane – to enhance quality two months before the harvest season. Uneven spraying, a result of flying too high or adverse winds, results in over-ripening and effectively ruins a portion of the crop.

“Advanced RTK GPS and radar... ensure that the drone covers the entire field while actively avoiding obstacles, maintaining a distance of 1.5 to 3m above the crop,” says Dexter Tangocci, director and co-founder of Integrated Aerial Systems (IAS), which recently became the second drone service provider in South Africa to receive a crop spraying license.

“This is close enough to ensure that close to 100% of the field is sprayed even in difficult, undulating terrain, while minimising overspray which is incredibly damaging to crops such as sugarcane.”

drone crop spraying South Africa
Integrated Aerial System's fleet of DJI Agras T-16 drones for crop spraying (Image supplied)

The price of these specialised drones can range from R220,000 to R320,000, depending on the preferred payload. Combined with the costs of advanced pilot training and CAA certification, such spraying isn't cheap, and larger farms may not save much, yet.

“The per hectare cost of drone crop spraying is roughly in line with the cost of manned aerial application on a per hectare rate,” says Tangocci.

“However, manned aircraft requires economies of scale and much larger farms or at least many adjacent farms to be sprayed to make it commercially viable for them, whereas drone application is cost effective and commercially viable on much smaller farms.”

Drone sprayers are also inherently safer, cutting out an in-plane pilot zooming by close to the ground, reducing fuel use, and keeping chemicals where they are intended to go. 

Receive a daily news update on your cellphone. Or get the best of our site emailed to you

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.