A drone in the Oristano coastal wetlands (Sardinia, Italy). Photo: © MedWet/ C. Amico

The drones of Oristano

The drone hums, takes off slowly, scattering dust and small stones. It hovers for a few moments as if to weigh up the flying conditions, then it shoots upwards, soon becoming a shadow in the sky. From above, the drone commands a view of the Gulf of Oristano, Sardinia, the blue sea bounding the yellow, green and brown fields of May, tractors moving slowly along the tracks and the rectangle of young corn below. The small humming spot settles, then begins to make regular zigzags across the rectangle of the crop.

All the while, the drone sends an X-ray of conditions in the field to Andrea Liverani’s tablet. Liverani is a 24-year-old entrepreneur from Oristano; he is also a certified drone pilot. In 2019, he began a collaboration with Coldiretti Oristano and the Maristanis project, co-funded by the MAVA Foundation, aiming to help conserve water for agriculture in coastal wetlands across the Gulf of Oristano.

In Sardinia and in other Mediterranean regions, for thousands of years, farmers used coastal wetlands for agriculture, relying on them for everything from food and clean water to the retention of soil and the cycling of nutrients. But modern intensive agriculture has led to a massive loss of wetlands in recent decades. Nevertheless, recent studies show that in order to remain sustainable, agriculture can and must reconcile the provision of food security with the maintenance of wetlands – and farmers themselves can play a key role in changing the agricultural landscape for the better.

Andrea Liverani, an entrepreneur from Oristano.. Photo: © MedWet/C. Amico

Farmers can be game-changers in preserving the Mediterranean basin, extracting limited water resources in a sustainable way and protecting areas of high cultural and biodiversity value. For example, they can make their irrigation systems more efficient for the sake of coastal wetlands – and that’s where Liverani and his drones come in. The drones are used to capture images of the health of the crops, and can highlight critical issues relating to pathogens, fertilization and water stress: the farmers can then address these in an informed and targeted way.

“I’m the son of farmers, so with this project I’ve combined a family passion with my studies in aeronautics,” explains Liverani. “Drones are starting to make a big difference in agriculture, thanks to the new multispectral sensors that allow us to make a sort of X-ray of the plants and reveal information on their state of health. We can monitor them constantly.

Coastal wetlands of Oristano (Sardinia). Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

“The project was born from the need for farmers to adapt to today’s changing climatic conditions, which are seeing periods of severe drought followed by extremely rainy periods. We began testing for ways to reduce water use, optimize fertilizers and reduce plant diseases. We’ve been gradually gaining the trust of farmers with our results: in the case of rice cultivation we’ve successfully reduced the use of water resources by 20% and the use of fertilizers by 30%.”

Continuing its journey, the drone passes from the fields not far from the Tanca Marchesa to 50 hectares spread over the entire reclamation area of the gulf. This scheme aims to increase food production while simultaneously improving the state of water resources by enhancing yields of rain-fed systems and strengthening the efficiency of irrigated systems. There are several crops involved in the project; mainly corn, as well as rice, sorghum and medical herbs. Each farm is offering five hectares, two hectares of which will be irrigated with the traditional method and three with the new experimental approach.

Successful water conservation will lead not only to the protection of ecosystems but also to substantial economic savings. What’s more, the constant photography of the fields also leads to substantial savings in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, giving agronomists analytic tools for targeted and timely action. Over time, the surveys will become an archive giving a valuable historical perspective of production patterns.

Carlo Ferrari, CEO and owner of Rice Farm iFerrari, is one of the farmers involved: “A company today can’t think of doing business without a sustainable strategy. Riso iFerrari started dealing with sustainability about 15 years ago when we decided to enter the market with rice for consumption, creating our own brand. The questions we immediately asked ourselves were ‘What can we do to give more to the consumer?’ and ‘What do we want to do for future generations?’ We began experimenting with drones and precision agriculture in 2020. The drones mean we can monitor the growth of the rice and – based on constant analysis – intervene only when and where it’s needed, without using treatments and fertilizers in unnecessary areas.

“Taking action like this is really important, but so is communication. By raising awareness of our commitment, we can pass on the values of social, environmental and economic sustainability to future generations.”

In Oristano, Liverani’s drones – which recently won the Coldiretti ‘Green Oscar’ – are helping to make this possible.