Reality Capture in the Coffee Plantations of Costa Rica

May 10, 2023
Rebecca Lehman

Paulo Ruiz Cubillo is a research geologist and teacher at INDIGO.  Dr. Ruiz uses UAVs to generate topographic information in cultivation areas that may be affected by geological processes. Recently, he has been using drones to understand the dynamics of coffee plantations in Costa Rica and their interaction with geomorphology. 

For the GLOBHE Sustainability Challenge, sponsored by DroneDeploy, Dr. Ruiz won third place. Globhe's platform is a marketplace that connects local drone operators worldwide with organizations that need drone data. Dr. Ruiz looked at how Costa Rica’s volcanic and landslide-prone environment impacted coffee plantations. Dr. Ruiz used DroneDeploy’s software to understand complex interactions within this ecosystem. 

Coffee fields in Costa Rica have a unique combination of characteristics that favor the cultivation of Arabica coffee beans. High altitudes, fertile volcanic soil, warm temperatures, steady rainfall, and a tropical climate help to produce quality coffee with great aroma and flavor.

However, Costa Rica’s coffee plantations can also be highly susceptible to geological hazards. They are often located near the top of active volcanoes and ash from eruptions can affect them. The steep slopes and high levels of moisture in the soil also make these areas prone to landslides.

Specifically, Dr. Ruiz has been using UAVs and LiDAR to research and document the Route 126 area, which has been affected by landslides and earthquakes. The route is one of the oldest roads in the region and a historic trade route for coffee. Trees surround a ravine that runs next to the plantation, and these trees and vegetation help prevent landslides and erosion. Because the area has such high rainfall, natural protections such as these are crucial for sustainable farming. 

Q&A with Cubillo

How did you start using drones?

I started using drones as a work tool in 2017 at the University of Costa Rica, where I’m a researcher and teacher. Here I used them to assess road infrastructure that may be affected by landslides and also to determine changes over time at the top of volcanoes.

What is your research focused on? 

My research focus is to study volcanic territories, its geomorphology, changes through time, superficial geochemical processes and landslides susceptibility that may have a direct impact on the population and their activities such as agriculture and road infrastructure.

What makes Costa Rica an important place to study? 

Costa Rica is a place with different microclimates related to variations in geography and altitude that occur a few kilometers away. Geologically there are volcanoes, rivers and beaches where different human activities take place, such as tourism, agriculture, trade and transportation. All this means that Costa Rica is a place where research can be done between the interaction of geological processes with human activities.

New tools for farming

Reality capture technology is becoming an integral tool in advancing sustainable agriculture practices. By creating a digital twin of fields and farming practices throughout the growing season, it is easier to prove the results of different cultivation techniques and optimize resource allocation before implementing changes in the real world. Reality capture models can offer precise insights into topography, soil composition, and vegetation health. By integrating reality capture data, farmers can fine-tune irrigation schedules, adjust planting patterns, and identify areas prone to erosion or nutrient depletion. The ability to fine-tune these agricultural practices can enhance resource efficiency such as more precise water use, reduce waste such as with lower pesticide use, and promote sustainable land management. Overall, the fusion of reality capture tools with modern farming practices has the potential to enhance decision-making for farmers resulting in more resilient and eco-friendly agricultural practices.

About the Author

Rebecca Lehman
Rebecca Lehman
Social Impact Program Manager

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