agricultural drone

Japanese farmers plugging labour gap with drones

Image credit: reuters

Japanese farmers are using drones to fertilise their crops and spray pesticides as a shortage of labour plagues the rural areas of the country.

Developed by Japanese company NileWorks, the drones are on the larger side, weighing around 25kgs and capable of carrying about 10 litres of pesticide or fertiliser.

They can quickly manoeuvre around large pastures with a top speed of 20km/h and are particularly useful in Japan where much of the farmland is located on the side of mountains and is difficult to traverse.

The drones have been in testing for around two years offers high-tech relief for rural communities facing a shortage of labour as young people leave for the cities.

“As we face a shortage of next-generation farmers, it’s our mission to come up with new ideas to raise productivity and farmers’ income through the introduction of cutting-edge technologies such as drones,” said Isamu Sakakibara, head of local agricultural cooperative JA Miyagi Tome.

The drone can apply pesticides and fertilizer to a rice field in about 15 minutes - a job that takes more than an hour by hand and requires farmers to lug around heavy tanks.

A video of the drones in action can be seen below (interviews are in Japanese).

The developers say they contain large batteries with around 60 times the capacity of smartphones so that they can function for long periods without needing to recharge.

In the Tome area, a region that has supplied rice to Tokyo since the 17th century, a demographic crisis is looming.

Farmers are 67-68 years old on average and they may only have another four or five years of farming left, Sakakibara said.

“It’s a matter of whether the body breaks down first, or the tractor,” he said.

Compared to larger radio-controlled mini-helicopters that cost around 15 million yen (around £100,00) with spray equipment, the drone is smaller and cheaper, with a pricetag of about 4 million yen.

Nileworks is negotiating with authorities to allow operators to fly its drone without a license. It can be controlled with an iPad and runs on mapping software that is simple to operate.

“Our ultimate goal is to lower rice farming costs to one-fourth of what it is now,” Nileworks President Hiroshi Yanagishita told reporters.

The drone can quickly analyse a rice stalk and determine how much pesticide or fertiliser it needs, making it easier for farmers to judge their input needs and estimate the crop size.

Nileworks plans to start selling the drone in May, with an annual target of 100 units in year one and 4,000 in five years.

Other drone makers such as SkymatiX Inc, jointly owned by trading house Mitsubishi and electronics maker Hitachi, are also offering drone services on farms.

The use of robot labour to increase farming efficiency and reduce costs has been ramping up in recent years.

Scientists at the University of Plymouth unveiled agricultural robots earlier this year that could be used to replace European workers who leave once the UK exits the European Union. 

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