Agricultural drone technology has been improving in the last few years, and the benefits of drones in agriculture are becoming more apparent to farmers. Drone applications in agriculture range from mapping and surveying to cropdusting and spraying.
Agriculture and farming is one of the oldest and most important professions in the world. Humanity has come a long way over the millennia in how we farm and grow crops with the introduction of various technologies. As the world population continues to grow and land becomes more scarce, people have needed to get creative and become more efficient about how we farm, using less land to produce more crops and increasing the productivity and yield of those farmed acres. Worldwide, agriculture is a $5 trillion industry, and now the industry is turning to AI technologies to help yield healthier crops, control pests, monitor soil and growing conditions, organize data for farmers, help with workload, and improve a wide range of agriculture-related tasks in the entire food supply chain.
There are various growing concerns over agricultural sustainability, including forecasted water shortages by 2030. In order to address this issue, a digital farming technology has been developed in Japan. Experienced farmers are able to use water and fertilizers more efficiently, thanks to their extensive experiences, knowledge and know-how. By utilizing the IoT and AI to collect and analyze data from their farming practices and the surrounding environment, this technology enables even inexperienced growers to implement such intangible techniques. It can improve agricultural productivity even in areas with limited access to water. This technology is expected to bring a huge change to the future of sustainable agriculture.
Water, fertilizer, experience and knowledge are essential to agriculture.
But agriculture that relies on large amounts of water and fertilizer faces sustainability issues.
IoT and AI are coming into wider use in Japan as a way to spread sustainable farming.
Routrek Networks, Inc.
President & CEO
Water shortages are the biggest problem for agriculture around the globe.
In 2030, water supplies are forecast to be 39% short of demand.
Inexperienced growers have a strong tendency to use more water and fertilizer, and they let more wasted fertilizer flow into groundwater.
That water is a health hazard.
Cultivators with superior knowledge and experience can judge the right amount of water and fertilizer to use.
Doing this lets them control yields and quality. That’s where we focused.
We used IoT and AI to turn that knowhow into data so it could be used more widely.
This is digital farming.
It will take us from farming relying on experience and intuition, to sustainable farming optimized with data.
Meiji University Kurokawa Field Science Center
“Fertigation” is an agricultural technique created in Israel, which has a severe water shortage.
Instead of spraying a large amount of water with sprinklers or the like, fertigation uses narrow pipes to place drops of water and fertilizer at the roots of the growing crops.
We used IoT and AI to make an advancement in fertigation.
We collect data from soil and light sensors.
AI analyzes the data with the accumulated knowhow of skilled cultivators to determine the right amount of water and fertilizer.
We can minimize the amount required to keep the soil in proper condition.
With our technology, agricultural productivity throughout the region will drastically improve.
Implementing this simple digital farming method was inexpensive and highly efficient.
Routrek Networks, Inc.
President & CEO
Agriculture is changing in big ways thanks to IoT and AI. First, it will fix agriculture’s water shortages.
It will also help raise the value of farming.
We are already starting to get results in Japan, and the technologies are beginning to spread to Vietnam, China and elsewhere in Asia.
We need to keep improving agriculture for the sake of our children’s future.
I believe our technologies will help make agriculture sustainable for the next generations.
The demand for agricultural robots will see an increase of 24.1% until 2024, according to a recent business and commerce study by Transparency Market Research.
While the population worldwide is ever growing, the availability of arable land is limited as a number of emerging economies are focused on urbanisation, states the Transparency Market Research Agriculture Robots Market report.
According to the report, “These factors have raised a case for extracting maximum yield out of available agricultural landscape and have given birth to the market for agriculture robots, used for weed controlling, cloud seeding, planting seeds, soil analysis, and environmental monitoring.”
Technology becomes more affordable
The researchers say that as the awareness regarding the benefits offered by agriculture robots spreads and the technology becomes more affordable for cost-effective parts of the world, the demand in the global agriculture robots will multiply at an impressive CAGR of 24.1% during the forecast period of 2016 to 2024.
The analysts of the report have evaluated that the opportunities in the agriculture robots market, worldwide, translated into a revenue of US$ 1.01 Bn in 2016 and have estimated it to swell up to US$ 5.7 Bn by the end of 2024.
Dutch arable farmer Leo Steenpoorte guides his Oz440 to a plot of kale. The little cart is a self-propelled robot that acts like a workhorse.- Photo: Joost Stallen
Apart from increasing strain on the global food supply as a result of increasing population, some of the other key factors augmenting the demand in the global agriculture robots market according to the report are: prospects of substantial cost savings by the food producers in a long term and government support to adopt modern agriculture techniques.
Unmanned aerial vehicles
In addition to that, recent new advents such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones that are specifically designed for agricultural farms and welcoming nature of food producers in developed countries regarding new technologies are also expected to reflect positively on the global agriculture robots market in the near future.
Substantial capital investment
On the other hand, the requirement of substantial capital investment before production stage is achieved from agrobots, strong lack of awareness in several emerging economies, and the absence of standardised safety regulations for the usage of these devices are obstructing the market from attaining its true potential.
In addition to that, the commercialisation of agricultural robots is a time-consuming process and the players operating in this market will have to overcome it to gain maximum profits, according to the researchers.
The TerraSentia robot from EarthSense is designed to survey crops for phenotyping to help gather data for variety breeding programmes. – Photo: EarthSense
Regional players are dominating
The global agriculture robots market makes for a scenario wherein regional players are dominating within the countries they have a presence in. For example, Clearpath Robotics, Harvest Automation, Inc., and PrecisionHawk, Inc. are 3 companies who were ahead of the curve in the region of North America in 2015, whereas SenseFly SA and Naio Technologies held the upper hand in Europe.
Over in the region of Asia Pacific, Shibuya Seiki has been identified as the leader the same year, 2015.
Owing to the sheer profitability of this market and a radical growth rate, a number of new players are expected to make a foray in the near future and eat into the shares of the dominant players. For the key players to maintain their stronghold, the analysts of the TMR report have suggested development of cutting-edge technologies to meet diverse requirements.
In 2015, North America accounted for the maximum demand as a region in the global agriculture robots market, although vastly populated Asia Pacific is expected to turn into a highly lucrative region towards the end of the forecast period. China and Japan are 2 countries that are at the forefront of growing demand for agriculture robots from the region.
From equipment automation to data collection and analysis, the digital evolution of agriculture is already a fact of life on farms across the United States.
This article is part of our ongoing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
Of all the out-of-the-box products a Silicon Valley tech start-up could offer, Bear Flag Robotics may be delivering the most unexpected: plowed fields.
The company is developing autonomous tractors, a goal that equipment companies like Case IH, John Deere and Kubota are chasing as well. But the business model of Bear Flag, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has a twist — it does not build the tractors. Instead, it adapts the sensors and actuators needed for driverless plowing to existing tractors produced by major manufacturers.
That step is not as sci-fi as it might seem. From equipment automation to data collection and analysis, the digital evolution of agriculture is already a fact of life on farms across the United States.
Auto-steer systems, which use GPS receivers to keep rows straight and avoid gaps or overlap, are available for equipment ranging from tractors to harvest combines to sprayers with 100-foot-wide booms. Precision seeders and fertilizer systems can be satellite guided to accuracy of an inch or less.
The difference: For the most part, those operations still depend on an operator at the controls.
“Autonomous operation will be a service in agriculture before it’s a product,” said Igino Cafiero, Bear Flag’s chief executive during a break from his work in a test field of cilantro about 60 miles southeast of the company’s headquarters. The company’s niche is providing secondary tillage, deploying its equipment after a harvest is complete to prepare the fields for the next planting.
In a demonstration above, an iPad displays the pattern that a driverless tractor with Bear Flag Robotics technology will follow as it plows a field in California.
Cameras that are part of the guidance system for the Bear Flag autonomous technology. It uses sensors similar to those in autonomous road vehicles under development.Credit…Photographs by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
The need for driverless farming equipment is intensifying, Mr. Cafiero said, because of a crushing labor shortage, which drives up wages and worker mobility. Tractors equipped with Bear Flag technology are able to work fields around the clock, without a driver, using sensors similar to those in autonomous road vehicles under development: lidar, radar and digital video.
The sensory devices provide more than what Mr. Cafiero calls situational awareness, vital for safe operation where workers and livestock may be nearby, also collecting data on the land to improve efficiency. While Bear Flag pursues expanding capabilities to tasks like planting and spraying that have long demanded human supervision, it also plans to expand to the labor-intensive harvest duties of crops including tree nuts and row crops.
The drive to increase productivity is urgent in all phases of agriculture. Feeding a world population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 faces dire challenges, according to the summary of a United Nations report released in August. The effects of climate change — extreme weather, soil loss, migration pressures — will strain land and water resources, potentially disrupting food supplies.
Yet growing crops has historically been an uncertain enterprise, a livelihood that increasingly depends on forecasts of weather conditions, commodity prices and complex factors like maturity index and projected yield. Agriculture is seen as an industry ideally suited to large-scale data collection and analysis, and technology companies more closely associated with databases and computer hardware are seeing opportunities.
Igino Cafiero, Bear Flag’s chief executive, said the need for driverless farming equipment was intensifying because of a crushing labor shortage.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
IBM, for example, made its move into the cloud — not the virtual data repository, but the puffy ones in the sky — in 2016 with the purchase of the Weather Company, bringing supercomputer prowess to what once depended on the centuries of record-keeping by trusted prediction tools like The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Jeff Keiser, a manager for agribusiness solutions at the Weather Company, knows more than agriculture analytics. He also farms corn and soybeans in Indiana, where he has encountered many of the same conditions as the wide range of food producers who can make use of IBM’s Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture.
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“With the cold spring followed by high temperatures and a lot of rain, it’s been a very challenging year,” Mr. Keiser said. “I got some planting done in April, but it wasn’t finished until June.”
The decision platform, which will mark its first anniversary in October, is designed to ingest data from satellite imagery and from sensors on farm equipment that monitor, among other things, seed counts, nutrient levels and fertilizer flow, said Cameron Clayton, the chief executive of the Weather Company. A sensor-equipped farm of 1,000 acres requires vast analysis and storage capabilities on the scale of what IBM can provide.
With more than two million acres of farmland around the world covered, the platform provides hyperlocal six-month weather predictions based on satellite and atmospheric data.
The system makes extensive use of IBM’s experience in artificial intelligence to build management models for corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and other crops. Each model takes IBM six months to a year to assemble and accounts for issues that include pest control and fertilizer requirements. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution: The models are tailored to the specific crops, geared to produce longer potatoes for French fries or barley for malting in beer production.
Jeff Keiser, a manager for agribusiness solutions at the Weather Company, in one of his fields in Indiana, where he farms corn and soybeans.
The Operations Dashboard within the IBM Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture showing a crop yield forecast.Credit…Photographs by IBM
Humans are not becoming obsolete on the farm by any means, a point that Mr. Clayton, raised on a New Zealand sheep farm, is sensitive to. “We make recommendations,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the business of full automation.”
IBM’s intent, rather, is to provide farmers with a dashboard of controls. A farmer inspecting field conditions can take an image from a smartphone or iPad, automatically uploaded to the decision platform, to diagnose crop health. The system provides a quick analysis and suggested remedy, sort of a WebMD service for crops. The longer-term goal is to deliver real-time growing advice; partnerships with equipment makers also hold the potential to make better use of sensors, equipment monitoring and drones to make remote inspections less labor-intensive.
The benefits of automation scale down to some smaller growers as well. Penny Gritt Goff, the third-generation operating manager of Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse in Red House, W.Va., takes advantage of computerized monitoring to keep tabs on temperature, humidity, nutrient levels and other conditions for three acres of hydroponic greenhouses where lettuce grows in flowing water and tomatoes are raised in a bed of coconut husks.
The computer system can send alarms when it gets too hot inside the greenhouses, but it also takes action on its own, spreading a shade cloth covering to cut down on sun exposure (or retain heat in the winter), open and close vents, and regulate irrigation.
Crops at Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse in Red House, W.Va. The company uses computerized monitoring to keep tabs on temperature, humidity, nutrient levels and other conditions for three acres of hydroponic greenhouses.Credit…Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse
“The automated controls narrow the chances of failure,” Ms. Goff said, and lessen the need for some aspects of the operation’s human monitoring. “We could add more advanced equipment, but at this size it’s not economically feasible.”
Will tomorrow’s digital farmers spend more of their long days at the keyboard than in the field or the barn? You might think things are headed that way, given that a recent convention of the National FFA Organization (what used to be called the Future Farmers of America) devoted display space to its FFA Blue 365 initiative, an online educational platform, and tech advances in areas that include beekeeping and autonomous vehicles.
A focus of the organization, which has 700,000 members of mainly high-school age, is to prepare them for the coming transformation in agriculture, according to Blaze Currie, a senior team leader for the FFA. But the goal is not so much to promote the changes as to teach the mechanisms to accomplish efficiency advances like remote monitoring of an irrigation system.
“When innovations are introduced on the farm, it’s often the younger generation of operator who gets handed the new technology,” Mr. Currie said, noting that when a sales representative arrives with a device like a field monitoring drone, he’s often directed to the family’s next generation of farmer, a digital native.
“Give him the drone,” the conversation typically ends.
A farming robot revolution is imminent, with fruit-picking machines nearly ready to roll into the fields and start replacing human workers.
Of the industries facing automation, agriculture could see the most upside from robots in the next few years. And the farming robot wave, along with other new agricultural technology, could come even sooner than you think, as the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown worsens an acute labor shortage.
Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster compares this next agricultural revolution to the one seen last century, when new equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield crop breeds sparked an explosion in farm production around the world.
“I think agriculture is the greatest near-term — I define over the next five years — opportunity around robotics and autonomy,” he said.
The relative lack of red tape on wide-open fields is a boon to the farming robot and other new agricultural technology. Compare that to the safety rules needed to deploy self-driving cars on congested city streets. That, plus the labor shortage, helps create “a wonderful intersection between robotics and agriculture,” Munster added.
The farming robot is actually just one new technology that will transform the sector. Today’s agricultural technology helps farmers plow and spray crops with greater precision. Now improved automation and big data analytics are joining with farming robot technology, pointing to big benefits.
Goldman Sachs estimates precision farming — the combination of agriculture and technology — could be a $240 billion market by 2050. Automation will be a key piece of the puzzle. Market tracker Euromonitor says the intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence, analytics and machines for precision farming is one of the industry’s top business opportunities.
“I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity,” William Blair analyst Lawrence De Maria told IBD. “The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers. It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity.”
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Farming Robots Must Fill Unwanted Jobs
Farming’s labor crunch is a global problem. And the industry expects things to get worse in the years to come. Even in Mexico, where many California workers have originated, firms are finding it tough to man the fields.
“Whether it’s berries or lettuce or grapes, we’re all scrambling for labor availability,” said Scott Komar, senior vice president of R&D at U.S. berry producer Driscoll’s.
And higher wages aren’t persuading people to perform the physically demanding task of berry picking, he adds.
The 2017 median pay for an agricultural worker was $23,730 per year, or $11.41 per hour, the Labor Department says. In California, the biggest producer of farm products in the U.S., farm wages can top $20 per hour. But this is still not enough to attract laborers at a sufficient level.
The need for robotics in farming “is immediate,” said David Slaughter, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis.
“The political climate has accelerated the problem,” he told IBD. “We are, on some things, a little bit behind the curve in terms of meeting the market demand.”
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Rise Of The Farming Robot
Driscoll’s is one of America’s largest produce distributors. Along with its network of independent growers, it controls around a third of the $6 billion U.S. berry market. It has been testing a number of robots to harvest fruit. One of those is Harvest CROO Robotics‘ farming robot.
The Florida-based startup is developing a robot strawberry picker that two-thirds of the strawberry industry has helped fund to bring to market. A single Harvest CROO Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer) machine will be able to pick a plant in just 8 seconds. It will also cover eight acres in a single day and replace a team of more than 30 human pickers.
Next year, the company expects to start fielding its harvesters in Florida and California, COO Paul Bissett says. “We’re probably about two years out from full commercialization.”
But Harvest CROO doesn’t plan to sell its robot harvesters. Instead, it’s finding that growers and the strawberry distributors want robotics as a service.
In Europe, Spanish company Agrobot is developing a rival strawberry farming robot. Its machine uses up to 24 robotic arms to pick fruit and is capable of autonomous navigation.
And in England, Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own series of smart autonomous robots capable of picking fruit. Smaller in size than the Harvest CROO and Agrobot offerings, Dogtooth machines will be capable of autonomous navigation, locating and picking ripe fruit, and grading its quality.
Agriculture Technology Across The Supply Chain
In Cambridge, Mass., privately owned Soft Robotics has developed a robotic gripping system that has the same dexterity as the human hand. Its robotic arms are equipped with soft grippers that can even handle fragile produce such as apples and tomatoes. The firm is targeting both harvesting and food processing to automate the supply chain.
“With soft robotics we can now automate harvesting, processing, packaging and even grocery logistics,” in a way that hasn’t been available before, CEO Carl Vause said. “With our technology we are able to give the industrial robots that are tried and true out there today for speed, for precision (and) for lifetime operations, the ability to do high-speed handling of apples, tomatoes, heads of lettuce (and) strawberries.”
Meanwhile, UC Davis researchers have developed a “no touch” vineyard, where machines do everything. A robotic irrigation system directed by sensors waters the vines. Then machines are used to pick the fruit. The system allows for around 40 more plants per acre, improving yields, quality and costs. It costs around 7 cents per vine in labor to manage the touchless vineyard, compared to $1 in a conventional vineyard.
Industry Giants Eye Automated Farming Too
John Deere (DE) pioneered self-driving technologies, even though they are more popularly linked to Tesla (TSLA). Current tractors can drive themselves after an operator maneuvers them around the perimeter of a field. Full automation may come soon.
Deere continues to seek new innovations and bought Blue River Technology for $305 million last summer. Blue River developed a robot that can see, diagnose, and execute actions such as whether to spray a weed with herbicide. Its machine learning expertise in agriculture was a key reason for the purchase.
But Munster says Deere faces the same problem Apple (AAPL) had when it killed the iPod with the iPhone.
“If they don’t advance from a technology standpoint, someone can come in and steal the business,” Munster said. “But by advancing on that, it can be negative for their business too, because you usher in a new generation of machines that potentially would need less maintenance.”
Agriculture Technology: Beyond Fruit-Picking Robots
Slaughter believes a mix of disciplines will bring far-reaching changes to the farm. At UC Davis, he leads the Smart Farm initiative, which brings together engineering, computer science and biological science. It aims to use agriculture technology to increase production of food and renewable energy in the face of climate change.
One Smart Farm robot has a telescopic neck and is armed with cameras. It can zoom around on rails and collect data on how much light plants are capturing.
“The big data, the sensing, the AI, the robotics — a lot of that is going to allow a massive transformation in agriculture,” Slaughter said.
Berry producer Driscoll’s is looking at other types of agriculture technology too. It tested an autonomous buggy that analyzes the health of plants. The machine can examine 1,500 plants per hour. It should be capable of operating fully autonomously with a 98% accuracy rate by the end of 2019.
Meanwhile, CNH Industrial (CNHI) in February partnered with Microsoft (MSFT) to develop connected vehicles. The aim is to produce farm machines with new connectivity technologies powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.
How To Invest In Robotics
ROBO Global created the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation industry with its Robotics & Automation ETF (ROBO). President and CIO William Studebaker has been following the progress of agricultural robots with a keen eye. He says farming is a “massive market” for robotics, with a lot of disruption on the horizon.
“It’s all about trying to reduce costs and save time. It’s going to be a growth industry for a long time,” Studebaker said. “The pace of change is only accelerating, and it’s accelerating very dramatically right now. Either you innovate or you will be out of business. Innovation wins, and that’s what’s going on.”
He believes we can barely see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact automation will have on farming going forward.
“If you look at the innings we’re in with robotics and AI, we’re not even in the first inning yet,” he said. “The players are still in the locker room getting their clothes on.”
The agricultural industry can’t shut down for a pandemic, and so far, neither has agtech research.
TRIC Robotics, a Newark startup — and 20120 RealLIST Startups honoree — that has designed a robot to autonomously treat strawberry crops with UVC light instead of pesticides, spent the week working in the field at Fifer Orchards in Kent County. (And yes, Fifer Orchards the farm is up and running; Fifer Orchards’ country store and the Farm Market Cafe in Dewey Beach are closed until at least April.)
“The goal is to replace pesticides on strawberry farms,” said Adam Stager, founder of TRIC Robotics. “We’ve got a robot that acts just like a Roomba — it sits on the side of the field and deploys itself automatically. The UVC lights have been shown by 10 years of USDA agricultural research to work as effectively as pesticide.”
Eliminating pesticides in agricultural crops would be a big thing, and TRIC Robotics, which was founded in connection to University of Delaware, has been receiving most of its funding through grants, most recently a nearly $50,000 grant from the Delaware Bioscience Center for Advanced Technology and a VentureWell E-Team Grant for $25,000.
This month, the team was supposed to go to Salt Lake City to compete in VentureWell’s Open Minds Competition. Instead, they competed in — and won — the competition virtually, with a component that allowed people from all over to vote.
“It was actually much less stressful [than other pitch competitions] because they had us just record 90-second videos,” said Stager. “My experience with Kickstarter taught me how to market a levitating top in 2017. We wound up getting twice as much virtual funding, double the second-place team.”
It remains to be seen exactly how Hen Hatch, in which the startup has reached the semi-final level on the alumni/faculty/staff track, will play out, but the annual UD pitch competition will continue this year in alternative ways since its final round at neoFest was canceled.
At the moment, TRIC is using three farms for testing, with each having its own robot: UD’s Carvel Research Center in Georgetown, which is a full acre; a third of an acre at USDA Agricultural Research Center in Kearneysville, Virginia with the inventors of the UVC treatment method; and a quarter of an acre at Fifer Orchards.
With only the family-run farm Fifer open this week, the TRIC team was able to focus on a single location and a single robot.
“Since it’s so close, Fifer has kind of been our go-to-field for field testing,” said TRIC’s Vishnu Somasundaram, who manages UD students who work on the team. “We run into new issues and challenges that we eventually overcome, so we’ve been there a lot.”
Getting access to the farm meant convincing owner Bobby Fifer that it wasn’t too soon to put the robot into a working farm.
“The farmers at first were like, ‘Well why don’t you do this at a UD or something?’” said Stager. “I told them it’s not something we know works yet, we need to see if it works. If we showed it works at UD and then came to your farm next year with this technology that quote-unquote works, would you believe us? Or would it be better if we worked with the largest strawberry farm in Delaware and then came over to you and said it works?” With that Fifer, agreed to set someone thing up.
In January, TRIC Robotics gave a presentation at the North American Strawberry Growers Association Annual Meeting and Conference, where they connected with over 150 strawberry growers across the country, many of them interested in securing robots. If testing goes well, the team may start making deals at the end of the year — but they’re not looking to rush it out nationally.
“We have a nice home base in Delaware,” Stager said. “We’re working out of the house, we’ve got three farms where we can go test the technology. We don’t want to put 20 robots on a field and be scrambling [if something goes wrong].”
Move over dogs – drones are a farmer’s new best friend! In just a few years there’s been a huge rise in the use of drones in agriculture. Their popularity is set to soar globally as countries grant operators permission to also apply crop protection products.
It makes sense to use drones for spray applications – they can operate over sodden fields and tall crops where no machine could normally move, fly quickly to exact locations to treat target areas precisely, as well as be pre-programmed to navigate their own way around.
Recent equipment introductions, and regulation changes in particular, look likely to see aerial applications by UAVs to increase substantially and quickly around the globe.
Drone sales in the USA to rise by a third
In the USA sales are set to rise by a third in a year – probably thanks to new regulations that now permit drone applications. And, with John Deere showing its developments at the Agritechnica Show in 2019, it looks like drone spraying is moving into the mainstream.
John Deere revealed the giant VoloDrone at the Agritechnica Show in Hannover, last autumn. A joint development with Volocopter, it is 9.2m wide, has 18 rotors, a fully electric drive and is powered by lithium-ion batteries, which provide a flight time of about 30 minutes on one charge. Like smaller drones, it can be remotely or automatically operated and is able to follow a pre-programmed route. What sets it apart is its 200kg carrying capacity, which enables it to carry two tanks, a pump and a spray boom, offering outputs of up to 6ha per hour. It has a standardised attachment system that allows different applicators to be fitted depending on requirements. – Photo: John Deere
In countries with advanced agriculture, aerial spraying by drone completes the precision farming virtuous circle. This begins with remote crop scouting targeting treatment areas that are followed by applications on a pre-programmed route. And this, can not only be achieved remotely, but also truly autonomously.
Massive benefits for farmers in countries with developing agriculture
Drone spray applications also provide massive benefits for farmers in countries with developing agriculture. Indeed, in countries like China and India, they have essentially enabled farmers to leap from hand-held applicators, skipping vehicle-mounted boomed machines, and going straight to drones. At the same time drones improve application timeliness, reduce the need for skilled labour and cut hand-held sprayer operators’ exposure to harmful pesticides.
In November last year Chinese drone giant XAG unveiled its latest Xplanet quadrotor UAV, which has a 20kg payload. For spraying it has a 16 litre capacity tank and is equipped with rotary atomisation nozzles, fitted below the rotors, which produce 85 to 550 micron sized spray droplets. It also has variable flowrate control according to speed, as well as automatic refilling. In Rapid mode, with a 7m spray width it offers workrates up to 18ha an hour, producing a coverage of 5 droplets/m², at an application rate of 12 litres/ha and at 7m/s flying speed. The ‘Fine spray width’ mode is 4.5m wide and this produces 15 droplets/m² at the same dose and speed. – Photo: XAG
Drones are playing a major role in the Chinese government’s aims to use advanced technology to modernise its agricultural production and help combat the overuse of chemicals in the country. A report by the FAO and World Bank shows the volume of pesticides it uses is three times more than the USA per hectare of land.
Lack of regulations slowing deployment of spraying drones
Elsewhere around the world the lack of regulations is slowing the wider deployment of spraying drones on farms. This is either due to rules not keeping up with technology or simple outright bans on all aerial applications – as in the whole of the EU. While many countries are catching up by including drone use in civil aviation law, the difficulty is compliance with spraying regulations. In many places chemical applications are tightly controlled and in most circumstances this will require changes to products’ registered use.
Last November DJI, which is China’s other leading drone manufacturer, launched its latest Agras T16, six-rotor agricultural drone. This is equipped with a quick-change, 16 litre capacity tank providing workrates of up to 16ha an hour. Spray rates of up to 4.8 litres/min can be applied via four pumps supplying eight nozzles, which, depending on type and size, create droplets between 130 to 265 microns. Mounted on arms underneath the rotors, these offer working widths from 4m up to 6.5m, set between 1.5m to 3m above the crop. Flowrates are maintained by an electro-magnetic flow meter. The modular design makes it easier to swap the liquid tank and the battery, to help speed up turn-around times and boost operational efficiency. – Photo: DJI
Drone applications will also have to comply with local regulations. For example, in the Netherlands all applications can only be made with 75% drift reducing nozzles or technology. Currently, in countries with advanced agriculture, ground-based application equipment developments and product use restrictions are focused squarely on reducing drift and increasing accuracy.
Drone spraying rules vary across the globe
The restrictions on use and strictness of regulations regarding spraying from drones vary around the world, according to the type of farming and whether countries have advanced or developing agriculture.
This is perfectly illustrated by the world’s three largest economies, the USA, EU and China. First the EU. In all member states aerial spray applications, including drones, are completely banned. There are discussions between farming and industry associations and governments, but most experts predict it’s unlikely the ban will be lifted in the near future.
In the USA drone spraying is now permitted in many states, provided pilots comply with strict Federal Aviation Administration operational rules as well as separate requirements for aerial applications.
In 2018, China introduced new regulations for commercial operations with drones weighing more than 25kg. Under the same regulations, for agricultural spray applications pilots will also require Class V – Crop Protection training.
A survey across Africa in 2016 found 73% of the 79 countries did not have any rules or regulations in place, 19% have some regulations, while the remaining 8% were formulating the rules.
Concerns about drift
There are questions about the quality, efficacy and safety of applications from drones and rising unease among researchers and experts in the more ‘traditional’ spraying community. It’s a concern shared by Tom Wolf, an independent spray expert from Canada, where pesticide applications from drones remains illegal. “My primary concern is around spray drift,” he explains. “Low drone payloads mean they are unable to carry much liquid, so by necessity they must use low application volumes to provide any sort of productivity.”
Drones4Agro, which is supported by the EU in an EFRO project, aims to produce a fully certified, 150kg drone – a ‘flying tractor’. It offers custom designs on a novel platform that, unlike other proprietary designs, comes in widths from 3m to 9m, equipped with eight to 24 rotors, distributed across the width. These various sizes can support payloads from 15kg right up to 80kg. This, it says, allows users to tailor the drone to suit their operations – from vineyards to open field applications. At the same time it offers different spray application techniques creating very fine, mist droplets from rotary atomisers up to standard, regular pressure nozzles. – Photo: Drones4Agro
Drones expand to increase productivity
Size and carrying capacity of popular agricultural drones is definitely a limitation on output. But their dimensions are often determined by local regulations, with many countries granting varying degrees of ‘permission of operation’ depending on weight, often up to just 25kg.
For operators willing to invest in the necessary training and certification required for larger capacity UAVs, there is now a growing choice of heavy haulers. One recent example is from Tactical Robotics, an Israeli aerospace company partnering with crop protection company Adama to develop an agricultural version of its Cormorant. This drone has two internal rotors that enable vertical take-off and land and is powered by a 977hp engine. It has 500kg payload capacity (764kg including fuel) and can fly for 2.6 hours with a 300kg payload.
The only way to provide sufficient coverage with very low volumes is to use nozzles that produce finer droplets. “ASABE fine to very fine droplets will have problematic effects on off-target movement and evaporation. These fine droplets are also more prone to the aerodynamic eccentricities of aircraft,” he adds.
Failure to control movement of a spray is, and should be, a problem
Entering these finer sprays into the models to assess drift from applications from conventional, manned aircraft results in buffer zones that are hundreds of times wider. “Failure to control movement of a spray is, and should be, a problem,” he adds.
Cormorant spraying drone from Tactical Robotics. Drones can’t carry large volumes of spraying fluids, so they use smaller droplets for good coverage. This creates drift risks. – Photo: Tactical Robotics
While research into drone spraying is progressing, most of this relates to coverage and deposition as well as spraying speeds and heights. The USDA is, however, currently conducting trials looking at drift. Wolf is part of a working group in Canada researching drone applications, including drift analysis. While drones employ the latest, highest technology for flying, control and autonomous operation, some of the application technology is quite basic, particularly compared with modern vehicle-based boom sprayers. Drone manufacturers are addressing these issues with more sophisticated technology, such as rotary atomising nozzles, electro-static systems and other developments.
Still a lot to learn about aerial applications by drones
Drone spraying has taken off quickly across the globe, and independent research is struggling to catch up with what’s happening in terms of the application efficacy, coverage, deposition and, particularly, drift. Current drift modelling (for other aerial applications) doesn’t take account of the fact drones are commonly equipped with four to eight rotors. This introduces huge complexities into the airflow around drones, because the rotors turn in opposing directions and at different speeds and angles. At the same time drift will be exacerbated by the drone’s movement through the air, its speed and any cross winds.
Spray application expert Tom Wolf explains current regulatory models used for aerial drift assessment in North America – AgDISP and AgDRIFT – are not yet able to simulate drone applications. “But, by entering finer sprays into these models for their conventional manned rotary wing aircraft, we can see that buffer zones will be higher, much higher if finer sprays are used with drones,” he says. “I’m encouraged by experts’ comments that drone applications should only be conducted with spray qualities and under conditions where spray drift risk is acceptable,” he adds.
In the USA researchers have recently looked at the ability of existing spray drift modelling algorithms to predict the drift and deposition of sprays released by rotary wing UAV. To do this they combined two spray models currently used by regulators – CHARM, a proven airflow model for helicopters and AgDISP, a proven spray deposition model. “It’s important to note that this study does not aim to pass judgement on drift from drones, but to assess the capabilities of the model,” explains Wolf. “It does, however, include some important observations.”
The first: ‘It appears the proximity to the ground and/or flight speed and/or occasional crosswind can cause the released spray to be lofted above the UAV, producing significant airborne drift.’ Elsewhere the report states: ‘The potential complexity of the UAV wake, i.e. the impact of multiple rotor blades, is the randomiser in this behaviour. What is especially critical is to understand the pattern and behaviour of the multiple rotor wake and its possible ability to loft released spray droplets, an effect not present with full-sized helicopters because of their higher altitudes, flight speeds, and spray boom positions.’
“It seems a lot of work may be needed to fully understand the conditions during which drones will cause more, or less, drift potential. Although we don’t know the droplet size being modelled, some of the ‘airborne drift’ and ‘downwind deposition’ values (in the CHARM – AgDISP models) are very high, indeed,” comments Wolf.
- “In the first two months of 2020, we delivered 4,000 units of our newly released agricultural drones,” Justin Gong, co-founder of XAG, a major agricultural drone maker based in the southern city of Guangzhou, said in Mandarin, according to a CNBC translation.
- Large farms, local governments and agricultural products distributors are buying high-tech equipment as the spread of the coronavirus puts an impetus on reducing human contact.
- The interest in agricultural technology products and services also comes as the Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to reduce reliance on food imports from the U.S. and other countries over the last few years.
While the coronavirus outbreak in China has hit many industries hard, some technology start-ups in agriculture are seeing demand rise.
“In the first two months of 2020, we delivered 4,000 units of our newly released agricultural drones,” Justin Gong, co-founder of XAG, a major agricultural drone maker based in the southern city of Guangzhou, said in Mandarin, according to a CNBC translation.
XAG is not alone. In the north, Beijing Yifei Technology’s Chief Marketing Officer Liu Zhuo said he expects the company’s revenue to at least quadruple this year to over 30 million yuan ($4.31 million).
“Recently, we received increased inquiries about agricultural drones and unmanned vehicles,” Liu said, according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks.
Large farms, local governments and agricultural products distributors are buying high-tech equipment as the spread of the coronavirus puts an impetus on reducing human contact. That’s a key challenge in putting millions of Chinese back to work since most still labor by hand on small family farms. Since emerging in late December, the highly contagious coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people in the country and infected tens of thousands nationwide.
The interest in agricultural technology products and services also comes as the Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to reduce reliance on food imports from the U.S. and other countries over the last few years.
In fact, promoting agricultural modernization was written into the 13th five-year plan of the Chinese economy, which reflects the central government’s priorities and growth targets from 2015 to 2020. China’s agriculture ministry estimated that more than 30,000 drones for targeted plant protection will be deployed this spring. The Chinese market for technology-driven smart agriculture products is expected to grow from approximately $13.7 billion in 2015 to $26.8 billion this year, according to Statista.
Prioritize getting back to work
More than half of China extended the Lunar New Year holiday by more than a week in early February in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The number of new cases outside the disease’s epicenter of Hubei province has slowed dramatically in the last few weeks, but Chinese authorities have been anxious to ensure farms are back up and running in time for the spring planting season.
Beginning in early February, the national leading group for fighting the virus has repeatedly named agriculture as a top priority. And on Thursday, state media reported that the central government had distributed 140 million yuan ($20 million) in subsidies for machine and tools purchases.
The high level of support meant that agriculture-related businesses like XAG were among the first batch of enterprises to resume work, according to the company. The dronemaker also said it is taking advantage of special policies such as rent reductions, and 100 million yuan in loans at an interest rate more than three percentage points below the market level.
With this kind of support, “agriculture might be the least impacted industry by this outbreak,” said Gong Huaze, CEO of Mcfly, which is backed by Baidu Ventures and develops technology for precision pesticide and fungicide spraying. The start-up said it recently nailed a contract with the Zhejiang provincial government, and expects more deals with Hubei, the center of the virus’ outbreak.
“All of these measures are deployed to ensure that we won’t miss the most critical farming season in China, which falls in April this year,” Gong said.
In his view, part of the rush to support agricultural production is related to trade tensions with the U.S.
“China has enough grain reserves to weather even a longer-than-expected virus outbreak,” Gong said, “but any reduction in production would hurt China, a major food importer, in its bargaining position with the U.S.”
As part of a phase-one trade deal signed in January, China agreed to buy at least $32 billion more in U.S. agricultural products over the next two years. So far, neither country has publicly indicated that the virus outbreak will significantly affect the ultimate fulfillment of the agreement.
More consolidation, capital ahead
Broader demographic trends support greater use of technology in China’s farms in the long term. According to official data, 300 million people hail from agrarian areas and are rapidly aging, while many younger people have moved to cities, leaving farms with fewer people to tend them. Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated a strategy of “rural vitalization” in 2017 and it’s widely expected to be part of China’s upcoming five-year plan.
“Government policies in China serve as more than just guidelines,” Qiu Shuang, a cross-border agriculture investor at Silicon Valley-based Plug and Play Tech Center, said in Mandarin, according to a CNBC translation.
She pointed out that authorities often use investment funds backed by the state to create incentives for innovation in certain industries. In her view, “that explains why investment in agriculture is heating up now in China.”
And as the virus’ impact has hit many small businesses, including farmers, analysts expect more consolidation ahead. That will create the scale needed to drive larger purchases of farming equipment.
However, for so-called smart agricultural machinery, a major determining factor for its growth is whether it can be included in a government subsidy list, Liu said.
“Because the new kind of agricultural equipment is more expensive,” he said, “only with certain subsidies from the government, can it compete with traditional agricultural equipment in the market.”
— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this story.