There is a growing interest in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, in developing countries. Recent evidence from the field has shown that UAVs are effective in evaluating land use, land cover change, assessing the impacts of disasters, securing property rights, fighting against poaching, and have great potential for increasing agricultural productivity.
In many other African countries, youth are more educated than the previous generations. This generation of youth is changing the IT scenery on the continent easing the acceptance and penetration of new technologies. Mobile money, solar energy, e-commerce and online activism are a few examples of the technologies that are changing the lives of millions of people on the continent. UAVs are also one of these technologies that could become vital in many areas. However, it is still seen as an unproven technology by many, and policies and regulations are only being developed now because of its fast adoption by the wider public.
In Benin, although the use of UAVs by hobbyists for recreational purposes, as well as for commercial photography and video, is expanding there is still a lack of skilled operators capable of not only using the technology safely, but also managing and deriving information from the data generated by the drones. There is also a need to create a regulatory framework to boost the development of innovative UAV services. Global Partners, a Benin-based UAV services provider in partnership with the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Kentucky has initiated various projects that aim at reducing the skills gap in Benin in the development and use of UAVs. With the support of CTA, Global Partners also provides precision agriculture services to farmers in Benin. Using a multispectral imaging system mounted on UAVs, Global Partners helps farmers monitor their crop health, assess plant nutrient needs and derive fertiliser recommendations. These services have the potential to help farmers increase crop production and improve their livelihoods.
Through its interventions, Global Partners has trained different stakeholders (faculty members, NGO representatives, managers of protected areas, rangers, students, and hobbyists) on the use of UAVs for biodiversity conservation in protected areas and agriculture. Global Partners focuses its training efforts on three core skills that need to be built and/or reinforced: the building and maintenance of UAV equipment, the development of protocols for data collection, and open source solutions for data management and analysis.
Global Partners implements most of its programmes in collaboration with government agencies, and relies on them to obtain the necessary authorisation from the Agence Nationale de l’Aviation Civile du Benin(ANAC), the civil aviation authority of Benin. There is no specific regulatory framework for UAVs in Benin, and the ANAC utilises the rules established for small aircraft (RAB 11.1) to regulate the use of UAVs in the country. The rules require all UAV operators to register with the ANAC, inform the Ministry of Defense and get certification before any operation on Benin territory. Rare are the hobbyists and UAV operators who are aware of these rules, and even fewer are those who actually register with the ANAC.
The rise of UAVs is still recent and government agencies, such as ANAC, are not prepared to deal effectively with them. For these agencies, the existing rules do not account for the specificities of UAVs, but it is critical that the uncontrolled use of UAVs by hobbyists, especially near airports, is regulated. Efforts by the ANAC in regulating UAVs will require the appropriate training of its staff on the subject and a consultation with all relevant stakeholders to ensure the new rules do not hinder the development of UAV services while protecting the population. Agriculture remains essential for poverty reduction and food security. If the necessary investments are made and an enabling regulatory framework is set up, UAVs have the ability to make agriculture attractive to youth and reduce youth unemployment whilst stimulating economic growth.
To learn more about the use of UAVs in agriculture and share your experiences join the UAV4Ag community at: www.uav4ag.org or follow them on Twitter at: @uav4ag and Facebook at: @uav4ag