UNITRANS Africa’s 50-year involvement in cutting-edge agricultural innovations across the continent is set to soar to new heights after the company’s recent acquisition of a fleet of the world’s largest spraying drones.
Unitrans’ purchase of seven Chinese-made DJI T30 Agras drones, which were developed at a cost of over R400-million, is set to become a game-changer for the agricultural industry across Africa in general and the SADC region in particular.
The environmentally-friendly, low-cost T30 drones are already in operation in Malawi and Mozambique, with results exceeding expectations in the areas of spraying precision and the optimal utilisation of chemicals, thereby reducing costs and ensuring each crop’s specific needs are met.
“Drones have so many advantages over planes, including being environmentally friendly,” says Unitrans CEO, Rob Hayworth. “Drones use batteries instead of fuel and can spray at night, whereas a plane cannot, thereby allowing for 24/7 spraying operations.
“Drones also allow for greater penetration through the crop canopy as well as variable rates of application within the same field, which is a major advance in aerial spraying worldwide and a first for Africa.
“This means less water use and ensures that more chemicals go to where they are needed, instead of every part of a field receiving the same amount,” he adds.
Hayworth’s comments echo those of a United Nations Food and Agriculture research report that highlighted a noticeable improvement in the growth speed and yield of crops that were observed. The report ascribed this to, amongst other things, drones’ ability to collect vast amounts of data, thereby allowing farmers to increase their productivity while reducing costs, human error, and environmental damage.
Hayworth says that Unitrans, which has been closely involved in the agriculture sector since 1962 and which has a firm footprint in countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zambia, Tanzania and Madagascar, plans to use its seven drones in a unique way.
“We have a team of engineers, actuaries and agronomists, led by Logan Woolfson, who have designed the best approach for precision agriculture specialising in drone crop-spraying,” says Hayworth. “With the release of the new and bigger T30, converting all agricultural spraying and fertilising to drones is a ‘no-brainer’ as we can now spray up to 40-50 hectares a day per pilot. Each pilot flies 2 drones at a time.”
Unitrans Africa’s approach is to intelligently understand crop fields by using surveying drones to map all potential spray routes, thereby ensuring optimal applications based on crop health.
“We are also confident we can improve efficiency, safety and provide more data-based insights into your crop’s performance,” says Hayworth, pointing to the results achieved already in places such as Dwangwa in Malawi, as well as the Mozambican areas of Xinavane, Maragra and Lamego.
“By using two or even three drones at a time, Unitrans Africa’s strategy is to ensure that more fields can be reached per day. This, in turn, will lead to economic empowerment in terms of locals being upskilled to become drone pilots. This could never happen with planes,” Hayworth adds.
“Drone crop-spraying is more cost-efficient, less harmful to humans, environmentally friendly, and far less indiscriminate when it comes to spraying. In addition, drone data can help farmers by, for example, identifying crops that are under stress. It’s a game-changer for our operations and a win-win for Unitrans Africa and farmers.”