Lyela Mutisya is a senior at Lewis University in Illinois, studying Aviation Administration. She’s got her sights set far beyond graduation day, and how she can use drones to eventually help her father’s coffee farm in Kenya.
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Drone Girl: What’s your drone story, and what got you into it?
Lyela Mutisya: I took a course in fall of 2015 called Introduction into Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Before that, I had no idea about precision agriculture or search and rescue applications for drones; I only knew about military applications. My professor started talking about all the things you could use drones for.
DG: Heh, that sort of sounds like my story! I also took a drone course in school — pretty much because it was the only thing that fit in my schedule. So tell me how coffee comes into play.
LM: The year before I had traveled to Kenya and found out my dad had a coffee farm. I was excited to find out one day that coffee farm would be mine, but also dismayed to find out he makes just 20 cents a pound of coffee. I thought, ‘I have to do something about this.’
They can’t afford fertilizer, which is one of the critical inputs in coffee production. A well-managed coffee farm can produce up to 30 pounds of coffee per tree, but a coffee farm that can’t afford fertilizer produces more like 5 pounds of coffee per tree.
In Kenya right now, the coffee production has declined. In 1988 they produced 130,000 tons. Now it’s under 50,000 tons of coffee. Kenya is known for its quality of coffee and it saddens me that they aren’t making profit.
I thought, ‘What if we used drones in coffee farms to help them manage fertilizer? If the coffee farm is well managed, they can produce quality cherries and make more money.’ I thought, ‘I could definitely do this.’
Drone technology is effective at collecting data to help coffee farmers improve crop health. They can have a role in efficient crop scouting, earlier yield predictions, earlier crop stress detection, enhanced irrigation management and control, and more precise nutrient and chemical applications.
Pest and decision control is very important in coffee farming. Pests can cause an 80% loss in coffee trees. That alone can significantly hurt a coffee farm. If a tree were to get infected and lose 80% of their crop, a drone can help prevent that.
DG: You can do this! So what are your immediate plans?
LM: Right now I’m in the process of getting my Part 107, aiming to get it done in March. Then I can go to local farms and get professional, hands on experience. I plan on experimenting with the RedEdge Sensor and Parrot Sequoia. This will allow me to get the hands-on experience necessary that I need to eventually accomplish my research using drones in coffee farms. Then, I’ll start talking to the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority to get the necessary permits and approvals so I can get to work.
DG: So I want to circle back to studying drones in school. I’m curious how your experience was vs. mine.
LM: Studying drones at school is pretty cool, especially when we get to spend class time flying drones. At the moment I am taking an Airline Management and Economics Class, Air Transportation and UAS Operations 1 class. Most of my classes are primarily for my Aviation Administration Major.
In the intro course and operations course we do flying. The U.S. Operations 1 course is supposed to help us pass our Part 107 test. I have class Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on one week we would do coursework and the opposite week we would go fly drones outside. It’s about 10 students so we get practice to fly drones.
DG: What drone do they have you flying for the class?
LM: We have a DJI Phantom. In Intro to unmanned aircraft systems we had pocket drones to practice with which are harder to fly than actual drones.
DG: Completely agreed! I actually advise everyone to learn how to fly on a finicky pocket drone, so when you get to a drone that is bigger and more expensive, it feels easy.
So what are your other classmate’s plans? Do they also want to work in drones?
LM: The ones I’ve spoken to say they want to fly for major companies, like Insitu. There are probably only 2 females in that class.
DG: I was wondering about that! What’s it like being one of only a few women in drones?
LM: Our aviation department is very male-dominated. There are classes where I am one of only one or two females in there, and I’m the only female student of color. I would like to change that in the future. I want to carry the torch on. I would love to have another African woman follow my footsteps in the drone industry.
DG: You’re right. I go to so many conferences and see so few women on the stage, and even fewer people of color. Diverse perspectives are so important!
LM: When I go to Africa and talk to young adults like me, it’s sad to see how brilliant they are but are doing whatever they can to make ends meet. I would love to help them use drones. I would love to see young people in Kenya flying drones for photography, real estate and precision agriculture.
DG: So what are your plans for the future?
LM: I want to open my own consulting firm that would help government officials throughout Africa implement the use of drones. A lot of companies, including Kenya, are not familiar with the drone industry and don’t have a lot of rules in place. It’s hard for people who want to use a drone in Kenya for photography or movies to get the proper certifications. I’m the pioneer. I want to fly drones for coffee.