Written by: Moses Gichanga, Founder & Lead Engineer., Autonomous Systems Research (ASR).
ASR is a multidisciplinary research group specializing in engineering research and its use in tackling conservation, humanitarian and other issues. We aim to promote sustainable, resilient communities by providing educational resources related to the use of technology in support of social and environmental advancement.
A brief background: Africa is predominantly arid and semi-arid, and the majority (0ver 70%) of farmers are small holder farmers. To ensure ample food within the continent Agricultural practices need to be boosted to include metrics on crop and soil health. To do so requires conducting either direct sampling or through means of remote sensing techniques, such as using an airborne sensor on an aircraft. Since drones are an affordable alternative for aerial surveillance we opted to design our ecosystem around them. Our initial undertaking was to ensure we familiarize ourselves with how to conduct remote sensing missions, and to collect preliminary data to be used on our use cases and for our platform.
Over the past 6 months, we’ve conducted several remote sensing missions in the East African region. These missions have been challenging and exciting, and have provided us with invaluable lessons and insights. We’ve realized that conducting aerial missions encompasses more than the technical aspects – we’ve needed to also consider human resource mobilization, licensing, local government considerations, and security concerns requiring law enforcement.
Here are a few examples of these considerations:
Technical malfunction: A lot of the areas we surveyed were remote – which meant more preparation and resources were required to be able to carry out these missions. Take, for example, we went 250km from Kampala city to conduct an aerial survey of a maize farm. During this mission, one of our drone’ propellers broke and if we didn’t bring additional supplies, we probably would have had returned empty-handed. Soon every trip we’ve conducted after that, we brought a small Unmanned Aerial System (and a backup, two sets of batteries, 4 sets of propellers, and chargers with an inverter to produce electricity on site. We also made sure to carry two laptops and two tablets with our phones acting as backups for the ground control station.
Environmental factors: We also embarked on a mission in the Northern region of Uganda where wild animals were in close proximity to our area of operation. This required us to have a security detail at all times. Regardless of these requirements and risks, we were thrilled to have met many farmers who were all willing to support us in our work. They allowed us to survey their land and offered to provide more information for us to better understand when they planted and what agricultural inputs and practices they undertake on their farms.
Weather: made sure to check the weather. But sometimes it doesn’t go the way we’ve planned. On one of our missions, a rainstorm occurred while we were airborne. Fortunately, the aircraft was saved and landed without incident. Sometimes weather forecasts aren’t very accurate as there are not many weather stations and relying on satellite acquired data isn’t without its inaccuracies. Getting information on the ground has proved reliable, and we can then make assessments of the accuracy of weather information we’ve acquired elsewhere.
Capacity: Most importantly we’ve discovered that conducting remote sense missions are a two-person job, (at the very least). You need a pilot in command, and a payload specialist or sensor operator. This person can also at times assume the role of the visual observer, but it would be ideal to have a visual observer possibly situated a bit away from your command post with a means to notify the remote pilot in command for maximum situational awareness.
Mission results and pending questions to explore
Exploring crop indices and soil samples, and we have concluded that this data is highly technical for farmers to utilize. We have also realized the data can grow exponentially, and that consequently patterns can be deduced (which is very helpful to data consumers).
Hence, we are working out how to serialize it to a relational database so that we can run queries based on algorithms we are developing to work out key metrics for various use-cases including agriculture, economic modelling, tourism, to mention a few.
In the next 6 months, we will embark to derive useful information pertaining to water for agriculture, soil, and crop health. Our platform, dubbed an Aerial Plant, Atmospheric and Soil Sounding System or A-PLASSS or simply A+, is geared toward provision of high resolution data for farmers, and specifically, small holder farmers who are most of the farmers in our region. We will aggregate the data into meaningful information to provide a formatted short message for the farmer’s consumption. Raw data will be available for scientists and interested parties to consume, but our bias is towards food production.
We realized that water for farming and livestock production is critical, and A+ will be equipped with sounding instruments for water reservoirs. During the rainy season a lot of silt was deposited in the reservoirs, and visual inspection shows they are full, while the actual situation may be the bulk of the silt is a quarter or more of the reservoir. A+ will establish correct water quantity and can hence provide information for local governments to determine where to dredge.
Other key highlights: Capacity building activities in local schools and universities
Our flights and aerial work has drawn a lot of children and young adults in primary, secondary and colleges/universities, and we realized this as an opportunity to provide mentorship on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. We have a little over 1000 students currently. We have decided thus to open a club for STEM and related activities and are currently looking for a host institution. We have had numerous meetups at various primary and secondary schools, and we aim to formalize the club to offer a form co-curriculum program for participants. We are deliberating with a university about the hosting and hope to get the matter addressed shortly.
Although not our primary goal, the idea of running a STEM club helps us understand our systems better and helps us identify talent for our future employees.
Having capability to test and conduct aerial missions in Kenya would be an important milestone for us. We are currently exploring this option by going through relevant channels to acquire the license. We hope to be able to conduct testing at the Malawi Drone corridor in the next 6 months, and this will be important for us as we can fly over a large area dedicated purely for sUAS operations. We will be testing long range sUAS operations within the test site as well as sensor capability and telemetry range capacity for our A+ platform. Being able to conduct these test locally will be a great boost to the turn-around time for us, and we are working with partner organizations in the private sector and Government to make this happen shortly.
The UNICEF Innovation Fund invests in technology start-ups from developing markets that are working on open source solutions to improve children’s lives. The Innovation Fund applies a venture capital approach to source solutions that can impact the lives of the most vulnerable children. These solutions are clustered around $100billion industries in frontier technology spaces.
Check out www.unicefinnovationfund.org for more information – including real-time data – on each investment.