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Drones are often perceived by the general public as hovering playthings that take photographs. Some even term them a ‘nuisance’ due to the negative publicity that they’ve attracted by certain individuals employing the said technology for spying and other activities that are considered illicit within the  local legal framework.

In September last year, media organization came under scrutiny for using a drone and trying to film the exhumation of slain editor Lasantha Wickrematunga resulting in authorities announcing that the rules and regulations in relation to flying of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles will be made more stringent to avoid such from happening in future. A drone fell on Ruwanweliseya early this year making matters worse.

On the other hand, CIC together with the University of Peradeniya are working together to make a positive change in the local agricultural sphere by using drones for precision agriculture. The experts involved in the project believe that apart from agriculture, drones can be used in a number of other areas including fishing, town planning, transport and communication to name a few.

Using unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs in agriculture may be a relatively new trend in Sri Lanka, but it definitely is the way forward given how much the aerial technology has contributed to Research and Development in the area over the last 15 years since 2002, experts say.

According to the Chief Operating Officer of CIC Precision Agriculture and Senior Research Scientist Manju Gunawardena, drones are currently being used not just for data capturing and collection but also to treat crops in a specific area if a matter arises instead of blanket-treating an entire field as how it was done in the past.

Speaking to the Nation, Gunawardena and Professor Buddhi Marambe, lecturer at the Peradeniya University Faculty of Agriculture shared their insights about the use of the latest technological trends and practices in agriculture, the progress so far and what the future holds:

Manju Gunawardena, Chief Operating Officer of CIC Precision Agriculture and Senior Research Scientist  | (Pics by: ESHAN DASANAYAKA)
Manju Gunawardena, Chief Operating Officer of CIC Precision Agriculture and Senior Research Scientist | (Pics by: ESHAN DASANAYAKA)

Q:What is precision agriculture?
MG: To put it simply, Precision Agriculture (PA) is using modern technology to collect information, measure the real situation and accordingly intervene when the necessity arises. This prevents the over-use of pesticides, chemicals and other substances that are harmful to the soil if added unnecessarily over long periods of time.

Q: About the drones used for the purpose of monitoring crops, are they locally developed?
MG: No, the technology is from the United States. We have a fleet of around 9-10 drones that are failsafe – meaning they can intelligently navigate themselves without interfering with commercial aircraft and such. Currently, we work within the framework stipulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. We use vertical take-off quadcopters for multi-spectral imaging and observation purposes. We’re experimenting with spraying drones for precise and accurate crop spraying as well as application of fertilizers and pesticides.

Q: In what ways can drones help develop agriculture in Sri Lanka?
BM: Drones help to study a given field and make informed decisions. For example, traditionally how farmers apply weedicides is in prescribed doses which is not a successful approach considering that some areas might need extra attention while some areas in the same field might not be infested at all by weeds. By focusing only on the affected area, farmers can reduce wastage, save time and manpower. So far we have used drones on paddy, tea, sugarcane, maze and mung plantations.

MG: Drones can fly over an area and take several clear photographs that can then be stitched together to make better sense of a situation rather than looking at one image that covers a wider area yet doesn’t capture most of the important elements that need to be closely looked at in making decisions. Drone sensors capture fields from an elevated perspective that makes identifying problems and finding solutions easier.

Professor Buddhi Marambe, lecturer at the Peradeniya University Faculty of Agriculture
Professor Buddhi Marambe, lecturer at the Peradeniya University Faculty of Agriculture

Q: Where does Sri Lanka stand in terms of using technology in agriculture?
MG: Countries like the US and New Zealand are definitely ahead of us but countries like India and Malaysia are only starting their preliminary testing now.

Q: What is the Peradeniya University’s role and what is CIC’s role in this project?
BM: The University of Peradeniya signed an MoU with CIC in 2009 to collaborate and see how the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can benefit the local agricultural industry. It was actually curiosity on my part that inspired me to initiate this collaboration. As weed-science was my area of expertise, my objective was to design ‘control packages’ to protect crops from weeds using drones, collecting data, pin-pointing and specifically applying weedicides only to the affected areas as opposed to how we’ve been dealing with weeds conventionally in blanket application.

CIC has been a facilitator and the university has been doing extensive research and providing the necessary data to make the comparisons to assess the accuracy and reliability of the collected information against baseline data collected through research.

Q: How are you planning on promoting the wide use of this technology given that this can actually help the country’s agricultural sector in a number of areas?
MG: Currently we make the technology available on request to any plantation company that wishes to take a closer and a more comprehensive look at their fields or plantations. We have different sensors to observe different areas like ground-water levels, measure colour intensity of foliage and the rest.

Q: Where are you carrying out your testing from?
MG: From our CIC labs in Hingurakkgoda and Aluvehera.

Q: How has the response been from the small-time farmers?
BM: The response has been positive so far. We haven’t formally introduced it to the small-scale farmers so far but we plan on further collaborating with the private sector in the future and using the know-how and technology available with them in propelling the agricultural sector of the country towards the much needed revolution.

Aerial photographs of paddy fields obtained from drones. They indicate the nitrogen level, water level the crop density respectively
Aerial photographs of paddy fields obtained from drones. They indicate the nitrogen level, water level the crop density respectively