How A Drone Helped Plan Irrigation On A Remote 7,400-Acre Rice Farm In Nigeria
With the help of agricultural drones, Africa can leapfrog into the quickly advancing area of precision agriculture — just as African mobile companies bypassed traditional fixed line infrastructure to create an innovative mobile finance system, says Quan Le.
Le is managing director of GMX Agri, an Africa-focused agriculture adviser, developer and operator that recently launched a drone-based farming application service.
There’s limited access to roads, electricity and clean water in a sparsely populated area about 275 miles from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja — but the land is ideal for growing rice.
Local livelihoods are based on small-scale agriculture — sorghum, rice and beans during the rainy season, and tomatoes during the dry season using pump-fed irrigation.
There, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from the town New Bussa, a 3,000-hectare, irrigated rice farm is being planned on land that was acquired in a long term lease from the local government’s irrigation authority, ICTUpdate reported.
London based GMX Consultancy traveled to Nigeria to survey and map 7,500 hectares in preparation for the irrigation infrastructure for the rice fields.
They brought along a fixed-wing drone imported from the U.S. A manned aircraft could have done the job, but it would have cost a lot more, Le said.
During a 55-minute flight, the drone took overlapping photos of nearly 300 hectares of the Nigerian land. Able to fly for four hours a day, the drone allowed the GMX team to map about 1,000 hectares a day. That is fast, especially if there’s harsh terrain and high temperatures to make working conditions challenging.
It would have taken a professional surveyor working on foot about 20 days to cover the same area, said Le, managing director of GMX Agri, in a guest column in ICTupdate. An Africa-focused agriculture adviser, developer and operator, GMX recently launched growmoreX, a drone-based farming application service. The company collaborates with drone operators in Africa.
The local emir, the village chief and a military airport located about 100 kilometers from the project site signed off on plans to use a drone. Local authorities welcomed the new technology, Le said. There was only one condition: the emir insisted on a flyover of his village so residents could see the drone and look at the photos it took.
The village flyover had an unexpected result. For the first time the team could establish how many houses are in the village, enabling researchers to better estimate the size of the population. This is important because the research team is planning to hire local labor to build and operate the rice farm, Le said.
Using the drone, researchers needed to create a map at a scale that would help inform the best layout of the paddy fields, irrigation and drainage systems.
Water is the deciding factor in Africa’s rice self-sufficiency, Le said. Most African rice cultivation is rain-fed and lack of irrigation infrastructure is a major obstacle to increase rice production on the continent. Most of the existing systems are poorly designed, built, and maintained.
Based on limited information from previous site visits, the GMX team was expecting to lay out the rice fields as large, rectangular basins. Large earth-moving and farming machinery would be needed to build and cultivate those basins. Paddy fields for rice cultivation need careful water management — water levels impact weed and nutrient distribution. This meant that for every 100 meters, half a meter of soil at the top of the field would have to be removed to raise its lower end during the leveling process.
The drone survey proved the hypothesis wrong. Although parts of the project site were flat, most of the terrain was undulating landscape.
Researchers had to radically change their design away from large rectangular basins and towards long, narrow fields that would follow the terrain. This change meant that a very different irrigation system design was necessary.
By using data from drone technology, agricultural planners can now more easily avoid incorrect infrastructural planning, Le said. This information also makes it easier to buy the right machinery and avoid unnecessary large upfront investments that can break a project if they are improperly planned.
Drone technology can potentially accelerate planning, design and construction of Africa’s irrigation infrastructure, according to Le. This project showed it can provide agriculturists with a cost-effective method of irrigation infrastructure planning.
After the farm planning stage, drones could be useful for farmers to estimate more accurately how much fertilizer and planting materials they will need during the growing season. Once crops have been planted, drones equipped with special sensors can monitor their growth.