How drones are revolutionising crop management and production

How drones are revolutionising crop management and production

Drones have become more than simple devices to take pictures from the sky. From package deliveries and logistics to data analysis and content creation, drone-based business opportunities abound. Thanks to robust investments and a somewhat more relaxed regulatory environment, it appears their time has arrived – especially in agriculture.

Using crops to increase crop production

Agricultural production has drastically increased in recent years, and studies predict that aggregate agricultural consumption will increase by 69% from 2010 to 2050. This increase will be mostly stimulated by population growth from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Agricultural drones are used to help increase crop production and monitor crop growth. Through the use of advanced sensors and digital imaging capabilities, farmers are able to use these drones to help them gather a picture of their crops and use the information to improve crop yields and farm efficiency.

Additionally, drones can be used to survey crops for the farmer. Weekly, daily, or even hourly, pictures can show the changes in the crops over time and the farmer can attempt to improve crop management and production.

How aerial and ground-based drones are used throughout the crop cycle

  1. Soil and field analysis: Drones produce precise 3D maps for early soil analysis, useful in planning seed planting patterns and to provide data for irrigation and nitrogen-level management after planting.
  2. Crop spraying: Distance-measuring equipment – ultrasonic echoing and lasers such as those used in the light-detection and ranging – enables a drone to adjust altitude as the topography and geography vary, and thus avoid collisions. Consequently, drones can scan the ground and spray the correct amount of liquid, modulating distance from the ground and spraying in real time for even coverage.
  3. Crop monitoring and irrigation: Images can show the precise development of a crop and reveal production inefficiencies, enabling better crop management and irrigation.

Legislation around commercial drones

With all these new opportunities come new risks so those looking to integrate drones into an existing business model should familiarise themselves with relevant legislation. The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) identifies operational drones as aircraft that have to abide by laws similar to those of manned aircraft. For commercial use especially, there’s strict legislation in place. As soon as you use a drone to earn income – even if you’re just selling footage you captured in your private capacity – you need to follow certain laws. Here are some of the main ones:

  1. A commercial drone pilot needs to get his or her Remote Pilots Licence as a starting point, followed by an Air Service Licence (from the Department of Transport) and Remote Operators Certificate (from the SACAA)  
  2. A drone may not be flown within a 10km radius of an airport, airstrip or helipad
  3. Drones must be operated in daylight and in clear weather conditions
  4. A drone may not be flown by an intoxicated individual
  5. A drone may not be flown within a 50m radius of any person, property or public road

Once the legislation side is understood, drone insurance is the next major consideration.

All about commercial drone insurance

In an environment rich in risk exposure – from human inexperience to theft to technical failings – the cost of the total loss of a drone can be devastating to a business. Insurance for drones is similar to an aircraft insurance policy, with third-party liability highly recommended.

In order to secure commercial drone insurance, business owners first need to decide what kind of cover they require – and how much of it – in line with the market value of their drone. Santam Aviation has developed an insurance product that provides the full spectrum of cover for drone owners and operators within the private and commercial space. Santam is one of the few insurers that are willing to insure this niche area of insurance.

It’s important to remind clients, especially those who operate drones recreationally, that insurance under Santam’s general personal lines offering covers very limited and restricted in-flight cover and would provide for loss of drone aircraft and claims stemming from Public Liability. Umbrella liability and Personal legal liability insurance are excluded.

Santam Aviation Insurance

The Santam Aviation policy offers full and comprehensive cover on the drone whether operated or not. This includes liability cover and comprehensive third party cover on the limit the client elects to take. Commercial or business policyholders should, however, note that the company will not indemnify the insured against liability in respect of the ownership, hire purchase or leasing of any aircraft as this is regulated by the Civil Regulations Act. It is therefore important that drones used in commercial applications are covered under a separate aviation policy which provides greater security against liability claims as a result of drone activities.

The following kinds of cover are available:

  • Cover for the physical loss and damage to the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System - RPAS - (airframe, payload, launch station and/or GCS) in its operating or routine testing environment.
  • Hull war extension cover: physical loss or damage to the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) as a consequence of a deliberate/malicious act or act of sabotage.
  • War liability extension cover: third party liability loss or damage as a consequence of a deliberate/malicious act or act of sabotage arising out of the use of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS).

Clients requiring cover will need to fill in a detailed questionnaire which asks for the model, make, management system and insured value of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS); its class certificate and intended operating environment and the pilot details with questions about the operator’s pilot licence and total flying hours.

For clients to successfully claim:

  • They need to declare whether they’re intending to take the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) across the border.
  • They need to declare whether they intend to do any hazardous flying – like at night or near power-lines
  • They need to keep a flight log, in accordance with any standard flight operation.

Drone enthusiasts should familiarise themselves with the regulations for operating drones in South Africa which were introduced in 2015 by visiting www.safedrone.co.za. If you’d like to know more about aviation insurance, speak to your relationship manager or alternatively by calling our Agriculture Contact Centre in Bloemfontein on 0860 247 400 or by emailing agriculture@santam.co.za. For more advice tailored to businesses, visit our blog.