Digital farming’s inroads into South African agriculture

May 17th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Articles: Vector, Featured: PositionIT

Farmers, investors and entrepreneurs in agriculture are not new to digital technology, but the recent NAMPO Harvest Day trade show held this week in Bothaville, Free State, indicates how advanced and popular these solutions have become.

The term “precision farming” describes the important role that geospatial technologies such as GNSS and satellite imagery play in agriculture, although some companies consider the term too limiting, and prefer it be called “smart farming”.

Fig. 1: An Airbus Pleiades satellite image of this year’s NAMPO Harvest Day trade fair, Africa’s largest agriculture trade expo. (Credit: Cnes 2019)

Fig. 1: An Airbus Pleiades satellite image of this year’s NAMPO Harvest Day trade fair, Africa’s largest agriculture trade expo. (Credit: Cnes 2019)

One sensor company, Crop Systems, which produces soil moisture probes and weather stations which communicate their readings over mobile networks and display the info in online platforms and apps, say they cannot keep up with the local and international demand for their products.

The company’s Niël van Eeden says it is not just water scarcity but also water quality which leads to more farmers using these systems. In areas such as Hartbeespoort, over-irrigating can cause salt logging. Furthermore, irrigation costs dwarf the cost of the probes, especially on large commercial farms, which often employ several probes depending on their crop and soil types and elevation differences across croplands.

Drones are also increasing in popularity among commercial farmers. Mid-way through the fair, French drone company Parrot sold out its Bluegrass Fields quad copter agricultural drone. The drone manufacturer also showcased its recently launched Anafi Thermal drone, highlighting the increasing sophistication of this technology.

But drones are not only used for geo-intelligence and data applications such as creating NDVIs, multispectral or automated crop-counting datasets. Some are also used for security applications and as “flying implements,” such as those used for crop spraying. Engel Drones’ proto-type of a large octocopter fitted with a 20 l spray tank and powered by a hybrid battery and fuel system for reliability and longer flight durations, drew much attention. According to its developers, Perfect Precision, the craft’s high precision and speed compared to that of tractor-powered crop sprayers significantly reduces pesticide usage and wastage. This has cost and environmental benefits, and saves farmers time, given the speed of drones.

Fig. 2: A prototype of a crop sprayer drone.

Fig. 2: A prototype of a crop sprayer drone.

Geospatial companies from the mining and other sectors are now looking for new business opportunities in agriculture and are tailoring their solutions and building on their current experience. It is an attractive sector with capital expenditure at R80,5-billion (“SA Economy: Agricultural Statistics,” n.d.).

Many drone companies attended the fair this year for the first time. Rocketfarm, part of the Rocketmine group, as well as GeoFarmSA, a subsidiary of GeoSpace International, are two examples of geo-companies to have launched agricultural businesses in recent months.

Rocketfarm offers drone data services similar to its mining company, Rocketmine. GeoFarmSA combines its online service, which uses satellite-derived data with ground sensors for farmers. These, through mobile networks, gather data to calibrate the satellite-derived models.

Fig. 3: Overview of South Africa’s provincial economies as of 29 March 2019. (Credit: Stats SA)

Fig. 3: Overview of South Africa’s provincial economies as of 29 March 2019. (Credit: Stats SA)

Earth observation/satellite imagery companies such as Southern Mapping Company also garnered attention. Southern Mapping Company is a distributor of Airbus’s Verde service, which provides detailed crop analytics for precision farming for anyone from start-ups to large agriculture companies. It is one of four farming solutions offered through Airbus’s One Atlas online service, a satellite company which operates a constellation of radar and optical satellites.

While there is scope for broader data products and services adoption, some trends are already emerging. Services are almost all based on subscription models, with the data delivered via apps and mobile platforms that users access with web-browsers, and the data displayed on graphs, maps and dashboards for quick analyses.

Fig. 4: Interface of the Aeroview InField scouting app, the scout map.

Fig. 4: Interface of the Aeroview InField scouting app, the scout map.

During the same week, although not at Nampo, Aerobotics, which employs artificial intelligence in tree crop farming, and Agri SA have partnered to provide all South African farmers with free satellite data and an in-field scouting application (Aeroview). The partnership aims to accelerate access to analytical information at scale to assist tree and vine crop farmers in the early identification of pest and disease, as well as yield improvement. For higher resolution information users can upgrade to more granular information by purchasing one of the company’s drone packages.

The Agricultural Research Council of South Africa (ARC) also used the trade fair to promote its AgriCloud mobile app for Android, which offers farm-specific advice from the ARC and the South African Weather Service (SAWS). The app includes forecast maize planting dates for ten days as well as spray conditions according to the time of day, with more functions being developed. It also has a crowdsourcing function which offers users the opportunity to create their own climate data by reporting weather information.

Geospatial technologies such as GNSS also drive agricultural automation through self-guidance systems for tractors and implements. Companies supplying these systems, including Vantage (supplier of Trimble solutions), Topcon, TeeJet Technologies and Ronin PFS (supplier of Hexagon and Leica Geosystems) offer similar product ranges with varying degrees of autonomy and integration via ISOBUS or CANbus networks to control tractors and implements.

While the self-guidance systems’ hardware (a rugged tablet with software and GNSS receiver) is sold once off, the GNSS correction services which increase their accuracy are offered on subscription plans that vary by duration of use (from seasonal to one year) and the accuracy of the service. Different operations require different accuracies, and while some companies and resellers say open GNSS signals are sufficient, most agree that the greater accuracy offered by subscription services underpins the solutions’ optimal functionality. For operations like crop spraying by plane or drone, high accuracy GNSS is a necessity, even during planting. The cost of these solutions, however, still limits their application to large scale commercial farming.

In line with NAMPO’s focus on grains, most of the digital technologies on show were for grain crops, with some also applicable to citrus and wine farming. One company also showcased GPS collars for livestock, to help recover stolen livestock, especially in areas such as the Eastern Cape where theft is a major problem. It allows farmers to track their herds and automatically informs them of abnormal behaviour (i.e. through geofencing).

Businesses, certainly in the geospatial sector, seem to believe there are new opportunities in the agriculture sector. Pricing and new business models may be key to driving this, and given the scope of agricultural operations, drones companies and satellite imagery providers may compete for market share, or may have to compromise by creating hybrid solutions which draw on the strengths of both technologies.

In light of technological adoption, it is worth remembering that while South Africa is food secure at a national level, it remains food insecure at the household level, as indicated in a new Statistics South Africa report, “Towards measuring the extent of food security in South Africa: An examination of hunger and food inadequacy”, published by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA). The disparities between food secure and insecure households remain geographic, with Limpopo (93,6%) and Gauteng (84,0%) having the highest proportion of food secure households, and North West (64,0%) and the Northern Cape (66,5%) having the least food security in households (“The Extent of Food Security in South Africa | Statistics South Africa,” n.d.). Technology could go a long way in addressing this, directly or through improved yields, but policy and other instruments are also needed.

Bibliography

SA Economy: Agricultural Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2019, from Statistics South Africa website: http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=735

The Extent of Food Security in South Africa | Statistics South Africa. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2019, from Statistics South Africa website: http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=12135

Send your comments to positionit@ee.co.za

Gallery: NAMPO Harvest Day, 15 May 2019

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