Sustainable business applied to agriculture aviation

EFMD logo on COLT - sustainability

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This week, EFMD Global and Ecole des Ponts Business School Circular Economy Research Center (CERC) are in Texas testing the abilities (specifically, aerial-imaging, flight characteristics and fuselage vibrations) of small, manned aircraft at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the world’s largest agricultural entity. In short, we’re entering the beginning stages of a project that focuses on waste elimination and waste prevention in agriculture and land management (waste elimination and prevention are a precursor to applying sustainability/circular in businesses and industries). Jonathan T. Scott, author of ‘The Sustainable Business‘ and a senior research fellow at the Ecole des Ponts Circular Economy Research Center, is leading the project, which he has been developing for three years. The aircraft category types being tested include fixed-wing pusher configuration, fixed-wing tractor configuration, gyroplane, motor glider, and a fixed-wing trike (at a later date).

Aerial imaging for land management

Manned aircraft are an ideal aerial-imaging platform because in less than 45-minutes an aeroplane can photograph a region/area that a drone would take over two weeks to cover. Drones are limited by flight-height regulations and weight/power restrictions, so it’s therefore important when selecting a method to investigate land management problems, to take into account the devastation that a one-week or two-week time delay can cause – particularly when disease or pest infestations can infect and destroy a field of crops in 48 hours or less.

COLT aircraft with logos (preliminary design) - sustainability

Preliminary design of COLT aircraft with logos

Currently, the aircraft used to conduct most aerial-imaging consume more than four times more fuel per hour than the small aircraft being tested (keep in mind that GHG emissions are always reduced when less fuel is consumed). Small planes also use petrol, as opposed to the more polluting leaded aviation fuel that the USDA’s fleet and most large aircraft consume (moreover, aviation fuel costs twice as much per litre as petrol).

According to the USDA, the costs of aerial-imaging is now somewhere between $200,000 and $1-million when large aircraft and expensive cameras are used. But by using smaller more efficient (and less expensive) aircraft and cameras, we think it’s possible to reduce equipment, fuel, and other input costs by 70% – 90%, which could make aerial-imaging affordable in regions of the world where it’s currently too expensive to be practical.

Importance of aerial imaging

Why is this important? Because aerial imaging is the key to detecting crop/food loss and reducing chemical use (pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, etc)… and early detection and action translate into increases in crop yields and revenues. In Costa Rica, for example, a precision ag multi-spectral imaging program worked with a farm owner to increase his harvest by 33% and his profits by $200 per hectare (think of the job creation possibilities)! The result was so successful that 300-hectares of his land no longer requires pesticides… and he now adds nutrients (such as phosphorous) only when they’re needed to boost the productivity of his soil.

sustainable plane

Eliminating and preventing waste in work systems and processes is crucial and it should be done before ‘circular’ materials and inputs are introduced. Indeed, what is the point of developing reusable (recyclable) materials and molecules if the systems that work with them are inherently wasteful? For example, creating a biofuel or inventing a more efficient battery or fuel cell won’t amount to much if the motor they power wastes the majority of its fuel and other inputs.

Next phase of the project

During the next stage of the project, Jonathan and the USDA hope to examine if and how efficient aircraft can also help detect wildfires. This year is predicted to spawn record numbers of wildfires due, in part, to increasing drought conditions around the world so the topic is quite timely.

EFMD Global, Ecole des Ponts Business School (CERC), and the Circular Economy Alliance are closely following this project and we will continue to relay developments and information as it unfolds. To learn more about Jonathan’s work, you are welcome to download his book, ‘The Sustainable Business‘, which is published by the Taylor & Francis Group and is distributed free by EFMD Global.