Drones demystified during a four-day training

During a four-day training course on drones in Benin, in October 2019, participants learned about many new topics. The types of drones, associated software, the importance of drone-related regulations, the steps for conducting drone missions, and the many different ways in which drones can be used. Field practice and the contributions of different participants from all over Africa were useful, but more time is needed to learn all there is to know about drones. In Madagascar, there seems to be a future for drones, involving young people in the process.

On my flight back to Madagascar from Benin, in October 2019, I realized that something had shifted in my mind. I had freshly finished a four-day workshop on the use of drone technology with Global Partners, a Benin-based company supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), through the industry association of African drone operators called Africa Goes Digital.

During these four days, many questions popped up: what added value did this trip bring for me? Did it help me understand and reach some of CTA’s objectives of creating business in Africa and attracting young people to the agricultural sector? What did I learn exactly? Was it relevant for my career and my life in general? How could I capitalise on this experience?

Andrianjafy Rasoanindrainy piloting a DJI Phantom 4 quandcopter

In my country I recently noticed top leaders’ increased orientation towards communication technology. Working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, as well as with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, we have been discussing how to start using up-to-date technologies. For this drone event in Benin, I knew: this is the right time and the right technology to explore! It was an opportunity to open other pathway in my career.

The most positive outcome of this experience was that we were able to learn and to discover an untapped business opportunity. During these days I had “eyes in the sky”, and I could think of many applications for drones in Madagascar. I could even envision myself launching a new drone company. I understood that there are many parameters to consider to make a drone business work. I never imagined learning about meteorology and weather forecasting, nor about aeronautics in general. I did not know of the many interesting applications or of the corresponding software. And I also did not think I would meet so many passionate drone professionals from many African countries.

New knowledge and skills

I was impressed with the variety of drones I could see and try at Global Partners, from the small Parrot ANAFI to the big DJI MG-1 spraying drones. The Parrot ANAFI can be put in a small bag and weighs less than 400 grams, but is endowed with cutting edge technologies. I learned that some small drones of under two kilograms can fly more than six kilometres. Drones are diverse in their physical shapes and aspects (multi-rotors versus fixed-wings), their autonomy (some will fly for 25 minutes, others for more than one hour), their speed in the air, their resistance to wind, the types of captors that can be embarked on them (like RGB and multi-spectral cameras), the precision of the positioning systems, and so on.

New to me was also the software that comes with each drone. There is software for planning missions, for capturing images from the sky and for processing the collected data. I also understood that some software can be used to address different needs related to infrastructure, agriculture, or to the environment. The drone software that we used included UAV Forecast, a meteorological forecast tool that gives details of meteorological parameters in a given place. Flying drones requires the usage of such tool to avoid loss and waste of time. The other relevant software that Global Partners taught us was the drone flight simulator that helped to exercise with the controller and a tablet without taking any risks. This tool was very helpful at the beginning when I was not confident enough to conduct the first manually controlled flight. For the mission programming we used planning software, where I learned to program different types of missions with different trajectories: the polygonal, the simple and double grid and the 3D circular mission. We also learned a detailed technique like orienting the drone trajectory based on the wind direction. The most exciting and complex software was the mapping and photogrammetry software. As we didn’t have a lot of time, we learned only some functions, but it was clear that we have still a lot to discover!

In addition, I practiced drone mission planning and was amazed to discover the intelligence and autonomy of the system that allows them make safe trips. I love the “Return to home” functionality of drones, which brings more confidence to beginners. The artificial intelligence embarked in drone firmware is astounding. The drone takes into consideration many parameters before taking off – for safety and for efficiency. And when it is in the air, it manages to conduct the mission correctly to the end, even if some unpredictable conditions might come to be like strong winds or low battery power. I learned about the importance of using checklists when operating drones (regarding the preparation of the equipment, before and after the flights), and I even downloaded free DJI checklists on my phone.

Training in drone piloting

During the four days of intense training, we acquired many new skills. The first was to assemble and prepare the drone before take-off, which required observation, logic and agility. I learned to mount at least two types of drones and got to understand the different parts of a drone (the propeller, the wing, the battery, the charger, etc). I was surprised to see that propellers on one drone are different and that they do not turn in the same direction. We learned about the difference between the lithium polymer and the lithium cadmium batteries, and the precautions required when manipulating and transporting the former.

Now that I learned about the many professional opportunities, I was keen to learn how to use drones in manual and in programmed mode. As a computer programmer, I like to code and see the results this can bring. So planning a drone mission on a tablet and pressing the “Start Mission” button to see the drone take off was truly satisfying. This was a safe mode to pilot drones. Quoting our trainer, “with the automatic mode, you can go to sleep with serenity while the drone does the work”.

In the manual (or free) piloting mode we learned how to manipulate the two joysticks and buttons on the controller. The permanent control of the drone gives another type of experience and requires your attention. In this case, we learned to respect the visual line of sight rule so as to not lose the drone. Some of my colleagues were afraid to use the free mode because using the two joysticks is not always evident at the beginning. Advance practicing with the simulator helped to build confidence.

Another new area of knowledge for me concerned drone regulations. I compared the Malagasy drone regulation to Benin’s, which reconnected me to my contact at the Civil Aviation Authority of Madagascar.

How we learned

One of the factors that helped me take so much information during the training was the availability of the large variety of drones at Global Partners: small, big, multi-rotor, fixed-wing, etc. The number of field practices also helped – even though we had to postpone some critical practical missions because of poor weather conditions. Luckily, on the last day of our training we could experiment with the DJI MG-1, the agricultural spraying drone, in a farmer’s field, and I could see the power of this big machine lifting 10 litres of solution in the air. The exchanges with trainers and other trainees coming from different countries and with very different perspectives, was very useful.

I believe my proficiency in IT in general and my affinity for technology and practical solutions helped me understand how drones work, and the benefits they bring. I also saw that the drone ecosystem is vast, and that there is much more to learn before taking any key decisions. In the training, time was limited with regards to the huge volume of technical knowledge and skills to acquire. Thanks to the Internet – and occasional good connection at the hotel – I could fill some gaps just by watching some YouTube video tutorials and by doing Internet searches on drone technology. I was convinced that I still have more to learn, but also saw it will be difficult to work with drones if there is poor internet connection or no proper electricity. During the training, we experienced delays because of the lack of good internet connectivity.

Learning how to fly a sparing drone for crop protection purposes

Our discussions showed many of the ways in which governments and NGOs can benefit from drone technologies, and this helped us raise critical questions about the costs involved, the priorities of different developing countries, and the particular context in Madagascar. It was not always easy to draw concrete conclusions during the workshop as we did not have sufficient information about prices and about the process to make quotations. Still, I decided that this is the right time to do something more productive with drones in Madagascar.

The relevance of drones

Because I come from a country where drones are used mainly for capturing social events, I was amazed to see the many possible applications of this technology – even in the areas where I have been working in the past (land surveying, forestry and agriculture). Looking in detail at these possibilities, I was inspired by the many different ideas that we shared. Drones in Madagascar can be used in a more productive way. One idea that sparked in my mind was to start a drone service business with young people. Given that most young people are still not familiar with the use of drones, I am eager to inspire and help them – something that can eventually be a good source of income. I am planning to organise a demo or sensitisation workshop and deliver a basic training course for young people, orienting their mindset in the right direction when talking about new technologies.
In addition, I decided to talk to the local authorities and to policy makers and to help improve the national regulations about drones in Madagascar.

There are many gaps I discovered when comparing ours to other countries’ policies. Coincidentally, on the plane back to Madagascar, I unexpectedly met the person in charge of a large environmental project in our country. Not surprisingly, we started talking about drones, and he mentioned that the minister is very interested in this technology. Our discussion ended with him saying that our country needs skilled people, so that we had to “continue this discussion when we touch ground”. The technology is truly fantastic, and the demand for using it is there.

My way forward

After my impact-full experience in Benin, I took some days to look back and reflect. I saw many business and partnership opportunities, but still I wondered if I had enough information and knowledge to decide what to do. I know I have to continue my own research. There is no one answer that fits all situations, since each country and each business has its own particular issues.

On the other hand, I was thinking about all the opportunities and asked myself: if this technology is used properly in Madagascar, how much progress can we see in terms of forest management or agriculture? How quick will this progress be? What if this technology can be used to take better decisions about the necessary environmental strategies? What will be the change that we will notice in the agricultural sector when drones are democratised, as the price of new technologies continue to drop? My conclusion is that I want to be a pioneer and help show these results in my country. Why not start now?

About the author:
Andrianjafy Rasoanindrainy
Executive Director
FTA (Farming & Technology for Africa)
Antananarivo – Madagascar