Ready For Takeoff: How Drones Bring More Safety To Farming
The answer to many challenges of farmers in Latin America is smaller and nimbler than you may think: Drones can support farmers and large fruit producers in the Global South to protect their crops, improve their productivity, and achieve greater profitability. Drones can enable more precise applications near buffer zones and reduce operator exposure to agrochemicals. In Colombia and Ecuador, BASF is helping to establish networks of partners, including the farmers. Through these collaborations, profitability and safety are improved throughout the agro ecosystem.
In the valley of the Magdalena River in the middle of the Andean region, it’s often cloudy and today only stray beams of sunshine break through as Nicolás Pérez drives his pickup to his rice field. Located west of Bogota, Colombia, the city of Venadillo is fertile agricultural grounds. Today, Nicolás is up against weeds and pests. If left untreated, these will reduce his rice yield and endanger his earnings. 31-year-old will apply agrochemicals, just like many farmers do to protect their crops. But instead of shouldering a heavy backpack sprayer and navigating muddy paddy fields in hot and humid environments for hours – like his father did and so many Colombian farmers are still doing today – Nicolás pushes the start button of his drone and prepares its takeoff.
Smart Agriculture with Drones: Experiences from Latin America
Digitalization, and particularly drone technology, has the power to transform agriculture. This innovative application technology can change one of the most physically demanding jobs in farming. Colombian farmers are aging and working in agriculture seems to be turning into a less attractive job option for young people. Access to state-of-the-art innovation and digital technologies can not only contribute to make a better living, but also helps making the biggest job on Earth becoming more attractive for younger generations.
Drone pioneers bring digitalization to the farm
Nicolás took up farming out of family tradition and has never regretted it: “My family has been farming for 60 years. It was my good fortune to be born into this rice-farming family. I decided to carry on the family tradition.” For more than 10 years now, he works as the crop production manager at their mid-size agricultural business that covers 80 hectares of mainly rice but also corn and cotton. His passion is introducing new technologies to tackle the biggest job on earth: balancing the need for increased productivity, environmental protection and value to society. “My responsibility in the farm starts at the beginning of sowing, giving the technical assistance, up to the harvest. I’m also in charge of all tasks related to drone spraying,” Nicolás explains. “We pioneered the use of drones in rice farming in Colombia. For four years we have been using our own drone to apply agrochemicals to the fields. We are very satisfied with the water savings, reduced cost and time and, finally, improvements for health and safety.”
Nicolás is convinced of the power digitalization has to transform Colombia’s agriculture. Approximately 20 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas, mostly relying on farming as the main source of income and stand to benefit from the efficiencies and safety from digital innovations like drones.
Benefits of drone farming
The main benefits of drones in agriculture are optimization of the use of crop protection products, reduced risk to workers, reduced environmental impact and high efficiency in application and collection of field information. “All this translates into high competitiveness,” said Camilo Bravo, co-owner of Agronik Colombia, a drone service company. He and his father Jaime were pioneers bringing digitalization to agriculture in Latin America.
Drones are real game changer for traditional backpack applications
“I started into this world of drone spraying because of my dad, who is an experienced farmer. He has an instinct that I admire and respect a lot. When drone technology arrived in our country in 2016, he proposed to investigate this innovative business area,” said Camilo. “It is a real game changer for the traditional backpack application. Smallholder farmers who cannot afford an application by airplane and have no access to tractors, rely on the application with backpack sprayers. After successful drone application trials with initial customers, we offered our service to more farmers. Feedback has been great and now they are asking for all their applications to be done with drones.”
Nicolás Pérez and the Bravos are part of the ‘Drones in Agriculture’ initiative by BASF Agricultural Solutions aiming to give 8,000 farmers in Latin America access to drone technology within five years. This engagement is one example of how the company continues to ensure the safe use of its products with the right stewardship striving to achieve BASF’s ambitious Sustainability Commitments.
Hernán Camilo González, project coordinator for the region Latin America North (LAN) for BASF’s Agricultural Solutions division, explains: “We focus on bringing prosperity to rural areas. It’s about how we can help small and mid-scale farmers to become entrepreneurs, closing the innovation or technology gap so they can become more efficient. All this is feasible through drones. With this project and the network of partners that we have set up, we’re going to spearhead the switch from backpack application to drones.”
Farmers, big and small, benefit from drones: Faster, more precise, minimal potential exposure to agrochemicals, and improved water efficiency.
Drones are up to 50 times faster at applying crop protection chemicals than the typical backpack sprayer, reducing not only time but also cost spent on treatments. This enables farmers to complete work in a certain timeframe with the ideal climate and environmental conditions, allowing for an even efficacy of crop protection products in the field. “In our experience, drone application needs up to 90 percent less water than backpack sprayers, helping farmers to conserve vital resources, particularly in areas of water scarcity. This has a very big impact. It’s one of the goals of humanity: efficient and responsible water management,” said Camilo Bravo.
Furthermore, with greater accuracy thanks to satellite precision, operators benefit from lower exposure and thus risk, while higher precision and control allows for better productivity and crop care. “This technology is increasingly valuable because it can be used on many different crops, not just rice,” Hernán highlights. “In the case of bananas, we have a great opportunity to continue to lead with much needed innovations and provide support to all our customers, including large fruit producers. Drone application will help to even better achieve and maintain buffer zones – a ‘no spray’ area alongside a watercourse, ditch, or field boundary. Therefore, a more targeted, precise application is needed that the conventional method by airplane lacks. Drones play a fundamental role in that.”
The biggest job on Earth is getting bigger
Even though drones can make farming easier and safer, farming is still tough and more complex than one might know. "I think the final consumer should be included in the process and should know where the food comes from and how it’s produced,” Nicolás points out. “People should be aware of the challenges that arise as soon as the crop is planted, the weather challenges, and in general all the risks agriculture as a business has. This awareness should be shared, so that the work we do is appreciated a little more.”
Farming is the biggest job on earth – one that uses only 12% of the planet’s land to feed and clothe 7.7 billion people daily. To support farmers, BASF is advancing programs like the ‘Drones in Agriculture’, in addition to innovations to crop protection products, seeds, traits and other digital technologies. The company is bringing these key innovations together in ways that make even greater gains in precision application and in how much farmers can produce and earn. As a top-tier agricultural solutions company, BASF aims to play a leading role in the transformation of agriculture to become even more productive and more sustainable.
BASF takes its commitment to safety for human health and the environment very seriously, offering right stewardship with every product to ensure the safe use of its products around the farm and in the field. The company provides access to stewardship tools and services that are tailored to every farmer’s daily work. These include protective equipment, customized training, digital solutions, and new and future-oriented application technologies such as drones that reduce working time and minimize potential exposure to agrochemicals.