School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Ms Kiara Brewer with her proud parents, Claudele and Andrew.

Graduate Uses Drones in Research for Master’s Degree in Agrometeorology

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were used by a graduate in her research to determine crop health and water stress in smallholder farms.

Ms Kiara Brewer (23) graduated cum laude with a Master’s degree in Agrometeorology after a study which formed part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project on using drone technology to monitor the state of crops to improve water use productivity with precision agriculture and improved irrigation scheduling.

In her work she used real-time assessments of multispectral and thermal parameters to estimate crop health and water stress.

Brewer, who grew up in Pietermaritzburg and attended Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School, studied for a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree, going on to do her Honours in Geography and Environmental Management.

She transferred to the Discipline of Agrometeorology for her master’s degree after excelling in the field in her undergraduate studies.

Brewer used drone-derived data and agrometeorological information on crop health and productivity in smallholder farms to benefit smallholder farmers by educating them on when to plant, irrigate, and apply nutrients and pesticides to save on costs and improve productivity.

In addition to delays in the shipping of the drone and the start of fieldwork owing to COVID-19, her studies involved a lot of own initiative learning as, being part of some of the first UKZN agricultural research to make use of drones, she had to investigate on her own how to integrate the strategy with the multispectral and thermal equipment.

Her research demanded long days of data collection and navigating a language barrier as she validated the drone’s observations with field measurements in the rural community of Swayimane.

‘The fact that we got to help smallholder farmers who are using these crops for their livelihoods made the long days worthwhile,’ said Brewer.

‘Integrating rural agriculture with Fourth Industrial Technology really does assist farmers with productivity optimisation, especially when you predict crop dynamics using drone tech and machine learning algorithms,’ she said.

Passionate about knowledge transfer, Brewer also compiled information about her learning specific to drones to help future researchers.

Brewer said drone technology could be applied to many areas of academic research and incorporated into curricula to keep up with advancements in the digital age.

During her master’s degree studies, Brewer completed a certificate in remotely-piloted aircraft technology through the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) African Drone and Data Academy.

Brewer is now part of an 18-month-long graduate programme at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Johannesburg, one of only 50 graduates selected. She is applying her environmental know-how to a range of projects and industries and exploring environmental social governance and sustainability challenges facing a variety of organisations and individuals from large companies to rural farmers. She is considering pursuing a PhD later in her career.

Brewer thanked her supervisors, Professor Alistair Clulow, Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi and Dr Mbulisi Sibanda for their input and guidance as well as the WRC for funding her studies.

She also thanked her parents and brother for supporting and motivating her, and her fiancé Mr Michael Ebraham, with whom she spent long hours with studying as they pursued their degrees together.

On her success, Brewer said committing herself to her chosen course helped her do well.

‘It’s not all down to intelligence, it also demands hard work and putting in the hours,’ she added.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan