Imagine one of the 900 potato producers in Cyprus growing a product with an average annual production of up to 150,000 tons and the first in exports. We are in the middle of the rainy season while the potato cycle has reached the point where the leaves are up to 10-12 cm, but unfortunately due to moisture, downy mildew has started developing. The field is extremely muddy, and the weather forecast shows that it will rain again in 2 days. The result is that the farmer is unable to get in the field with agricultural machinery to spray because of the mud and eventually his crop is destroyed. This could be avoided and the harvest could be saved. With targeted aerial spraying by drone, the crop is maintained. According to experts in agricultural drones, this is a very common case in Cyprus, where the lack of know-how but mainly the lack of resources to purchase a drone, lead farmers to use known spraying methods with often dubious results both for production and of course with negative effects on the environment.
The benefits of drones in agriculture
Agricultural drones have many applications in agriculture as well as livestock, and it seems that they can really save a crop and also reduce the environmental impacts of spraying.
One of their main functions is plant protection. A drone with multi-spectral cameras and artificial intelligence technology, can precisely map a field and locate the foliage that develops a certain disease, can measure the temperature and humidity of soil and plant, and control vegetative issues. Thus, in matching with the data that one gets from the installed meteorological stations, it confirms or not its data, and thus the farmer can in due time plan a targeted spraying with the agricultural drone (note that spraying drones are different from those that capture the field with cameras and photographs). Especially in Cyprus where the lot is fragmented, the terrain is mountainous and stony, and many crops are on terraces, the use of drones in plant protection is extremely useful. In fact, there is also the case where with the use of a real-time cinematic camera, the drone can adapt to the real spatial data of the country and perceive with the sensors the width of the terraces and the distance from the ground in real-time, bypassing any obstacles.
A second very important function of drones is spraying. This ability seems to be able to benefit a farmer in terms of effort, time, and money, especially in large linear crops such as grain, corn, and cotton. For example, one can spray an 80-hectare corn crop in 3 hours. Also, when the spraying is done on specific parts of a crop that seems to develop some disease, there is obviously a saving on spray liquid, and therefore money, which is also saved by not using a tractor for spraying, and therefore resources for vehicle rental and fuel. Last but not least, environmental impact is lessened as only the plants that really need it are sprayed while the others remain untouched.
In vineyards, the use of spray drones is particularly useful in winter spraying, when the vines have no foliage but only vine shoots (or canes). The drone drops the liquid in a targeted manner, makes full coverage on a vertical surface, and uses less liquid which is properly calculated. In fact, some new models can also spray at an angle, not just vertically, thus covering other kinds of crops as well as the sides of the vines. In contrast, spraying with drones cannot work properly when talking about a bunch of grapes because aerial spraying cannot penetrate the canes to cover the entire surface of the grape.
The biggest obstacles to using agricultural drones
The biggest thorn in using these new technologies seems to be cost. When an agricultural drone costs 25,000 euros, then it is extremely difficult if not impossible for a small or medium farmer to invest. If a farmer tries to decide to buy a drone, he has to study if it is economically beneficial for him, i.e. see how many sprayings he will make at the crops, the range of his crops, how much time he will save compared to spraying the soil with a tractor, how much spray liquid he will save with aerial spraying, and weigh the pros and cons. A solution might be to rent from a private company a drone and the operator service as well. In this case, the company should undertake the measurements and the sprayings so that the farmers can realise the benefits of such a procedure and get self-mobilised. Then, the farmer would save time for training, the cost of flight permits, and of course, the 25,000 euros to buy a drone which is not subsidised at the moment.
Of course, apart from the issue of cost, there is also the factor of lack of knowledge and the fear of the unknown that new technology brings, a phenomenon that is always more pronounced in the older generation of farmers. It’s not at all easy to convince someone who is 60 years old and doesn’t even know how to use a mobile phone to fly a drone.
Furthermore, it is also the technological factor that makes it difficult for a farmer to invest in such technology at the moment. The issue right now is that agricultural drones have a useful flight time of 10-12 minutes, so they need to come with a set of batteries, a generator to charge the batteries, and a charger. If the generator is not very efficient and is slow to charge the batteries, then there may come a time when the 4 existing batteries need to be changed, but the generator has not had time to charge the spares. Then the work must necessarily be interrupted to resume later, delaying the farmer.
At the moment, the number of farmers who have bought a spraying drone in Cyprus can be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, such technology is also used by the Agricultural Research Institute as well as the Water Development Department for excavation footprints for water supply projects (dams, biological plants, pumping stations) as well as for finding broken pipelines in flooded rivers as well as checking installations inside flooded buildings. Other public services that have purchased drones in Cyprus are the Forestry Department, the police, and the defense sector.
Finally, there is also a piece of state land that has been granted to farmers (former Turkish Cypriot areas), who have other facilities inside, and the use of drones is not allowed. For example, in Paphos and Larnaca, where there is an airport surrounded by fields, flights are prohibited. Also, many fields that are close to military camps can neither be mapped nor sprayed.
What a farmer needs to learn to properly operate an agricultural drone
For a farmer to learn to fly an agricultural drone, it is not enough to know how to operate a rudder and a digital application to take photos and videos, which is the most common use in Cyprus. Here is a list of the steps that someone must follow if they want to proceed with such an action safely and reliably.
- First and most important is to have all the permits to fly. The first and simplest category is the A1-A3 license to fly a drone over 250gr. and outside urban areas. One has to attend courses and pass the exams to get an Open Class license from EASA through the Cyprus Civil Aviation. The second and more complicated stage is the A2 license which will allow him to fly over houses, people, cities, etc. According to the Cyprus Civil Aviation Authority, as of 12/31/2020, all unmanned aircraft systems (drones), from small consumer devices used for recreation to large aircraft used for other purposes, are subject to the provisions of the legislation from EASA, which aims to ensure the safety of flights in the airspace of Cyprus and the European Union. More about licenses can be found here. But along with the licenses comes the actual knowledge of using this technology. The farmer or operator must have done test flights and have a complete theoretical background so that he can control the drone in emergency conditions when for example the signal is lost or the drone loses altitude.
- For spraying drones, which are over 25 kg, a more specialised license is needed. For these drones, the relevant license is subject to the requirements for “special” licenses given by the Cyprus Civil Aviation Authority, as chemicals and other substances sprayed by drones can be considered “Dangerous Goods” which can create a risk to people and infrastructure if not used correctly while operators must have the necessary competence to perform such functions. To request the use of a drone sprayer, a pre-defined form can be filled out which can be found here.
- Agricultural knowledge: The drone can take pictures with multispectral cameras, but the farmer must be able to “read” this picture. The photo from the camera is inserted into specialised software that shows a tint in the foliage indicating some fungal disease. There must be specific agronomic knowledge to accurately diagnose the disease. For example, a yellow leaf on the vine does not necessarily mean downy mildew but may be due to a lack of nutrients.
- 4. Software knowledge: It is good for the farmer to be able to handle the corresponding software that is on the market and analyses the data collected by a drone. What is happening now is that wineries and other types of agricultural growers are sending this data to specialised companies that proceed to analyse the data. Also, another part of the technical work is to be able – after having collected the data with the multispectral camera drone – to transfer the parameters to the spraying drone, so that it can be scheduled to follow a specific course, spray a pre-adjusted amount of liquid, spray for a specific time frame, etc.
Here comes the part of education, which in Cyprus is at a very low level. Most farmers and non-farmers who know about agricultural drones have taken some courses, are self-taught, or have attended the training process of some European project. One such project is AgroPro, in which we participate as Future Needs, aiming to help young farmers bridge the gap between the new technologies in their field and their existing capabilities and knowledge. AgroPro is an Erasmus + funding educational project, it will last 2 years, and among our partners are the Agricultural University of Athens, ISCTE and the Casa DO JOA winery in Portugal.