Although drones have become a huge asset to many industries across the world, particularly in agriculture, which has allowed farmers to monitor their lands from huge depths, their usage in agricultural practices, specifically for spraying pesticides, they are still subject to many regulations.
CropLife International recently hosted a webinar inviting industry experts from around the world, who all agreed that the use of drones in the agriculture industry for pesticide application has been growing so popular in recent years that it’s time for outdated rules and regulations to catch up with the trend.
In South Africa, to operate a drone for agricultural purposes, specifically pesticide spraying, operators are required to obtain a Commercial Remote Pilot License (RPL) and register as a Pest Control Operator (PCO) with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development. Both the RPL and PCO registrations are mandatory certifications that ensure operators have the necessary knowledge and skills to safely and effectively operate drones in commercial settings.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is the regulatory body responsible for the oversight and regulation of civil aviation activities within South Africa, including the operation of drones.
CEO of Precision Agricultural Systems, Tim Wise, said that many questions about drone usage remained unanswered, especially in view of chemical registrations and label specifications.
‘’Pesticides that are registered for aerial application in South Africa, for example, don’t specify what kind of aerial device can be used,’’ he said.
He said there are gaps in the regulations in terms of information on application rates for different modes of aerial application.
‘’If droplet size and distribution of chemicals were the same on a drone as on a helicopter, then new regulations were not needed for drones, as those applying to helicopters would suffice,’’ he said.
Hiresh Ramanand, stewardship coordinator at CropLife South Africa, said that not every agricultural remedy was registered for aerial application, but where the label of a product allowed for aerial application, a drone could be used.
‘’However, where aerial application is not indicated on the label, it is unlawful to apply the product by drone. Label instructions must be closely read since some labels may restrict aerial application to piloted aircraft,’’ he said.
Ramanand further said that the current South African regulations should not be viewed as hindering the uptake of drones in agriculture but rather safeguarding the technology.
‘’I, therefore, anticipate that drones will really take off in Africa over the next three years. But we will need to properly control usage since much damage can be done if drones are operated by untrained people,’’ said Ramanand.
Crop pesticide spraying by drones has a number of advantages, as traditional methods can result in inconsistent and uneven application. However, drones allow for more precise application and can get close enough to spray almost 100% of field areas despite challenging terrain.