Features | Environment | East Asia

Increasing China’s Food Supply – With Drones

China’s rapidly growing UAV industry is eyeing a new sector: agriculture.

Increasing China’s Food Supply – With Drones

A DJI’s Phantom 3 drone flies during a demonstration at their first flagship store in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China (December 20, 2015).

Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Although drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) achieved prominence owing to their recreational and military uses, they hold other value. In particular, drones could help increase the food supply, a critical need as the world’s population is estimated to reach 9.9 billion by the year 2050.

In Shenzhen at the China Commercial UAV Summit, agriculturalists, and UAV manufacturers discussed issues facing the industry in China today. Regarding the use of UAVs for agricultural purposes, Liu Libo from Shenzhen Drone Development Company said, “Although there have been advancements, we still see a gap between what is actually being used and the potential.”

With 1.36 billion people, protein consumption rising, scarce land, and the agricultural workforce declining, China needs to increase productivity. One option is using drones in farming, an industry still performed manually. Although the evolution will be gradual, Chinese farming is mechanizing. Wu Yiyuan from Shenzhen Hi-tech New Agricultural Technologies noted that “starting in 2012, the state government in China issued a policy to support more high tech agriculture including UAVs.”

Hovering above ground, cloud-linked multirotor and fixed-wing UAVs use sensors and advanced cameras to generate precise, real-time data and images of plant growth, soil conditions, land temperatures, water levels, and crop threats.

And as UAV payload capacities increase, applying pesticides and fertilizer is becoming feasible. According to Wu, pesticides should be applied within three days of a plant disease outbreak and drones make it possible to reach areas humans can not, potentially saving an entire season’s efforts.

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Drones also backfill for humans as Chinese farmers age or pursue other careers. In 2005, agriculture accounted for 45 percent of China’s workforce; by 2015 it was 28 percent. And according to conference speakers, drones can be 20 to 30 times more efficient than people.

Zhang Li, general manager of Liaoning Zhuanggu Technology company, said, “Because of the large farmland, we are calling for UAVs to do more of the agricultural work.” Unlike the United States, where farmland is flat and accessible, Chinese farms are often in remote, elevated regions where tractors can not go, but drones can.

UAVs are also more precise when applying agricultural inputs, which not only raises production yields, but will also save farmers money, reduce their exposure to chemicals, and protect the environment. On average, Chinese farmers use three to five times more pesticide than many other countries. According to reports, drones can halve pesticide applications.

In addition to farm-grown crops, other areas such as forestry and fisheries are also benefiting from drone usage, according to conference speakers. Drones can relay information on the health of large trees, orchards, wildlife ecosystems, and remote marine life areas.

Developing cutting-edge technology is one step in making Chinese agriculture more scientific, but the solutions also must be affordable and practical for farmers. Zhang Shuo, CTO of Hanhe Aviation, said, “It’s not just enough for us to just provide the products. We [manufacturers] need to provide the solutions… The farmers, they are not [UAV] experts. They need something that’s simple and clear… We need to think about the humans. We need to educate them.”

Although spending as much as $15,000 on a drone is affordable for industrial scale farmers in the United States, these costs are significant for Chinese farmers who earn annual average incomes of $1,175  and manage, on average, just 0.6 hectares.

Han Wei, vice president at An Yang Quan Feng UAV, sees workarounds to this issue, though. Citing larger farms in western and northern China and the possibility for consolidation, he said, “China has many areas where land sizes are very big… Second, China has a policy where you can transfer the land rights, so it doesn’t matter if the land size is small… And third is government subsidies for drones.”

As UAV demand surges, it is creating an ecosystem of industry participants who have technological, but not agricultural, backgrounds. New technical academies, for example, are teaching enrollees how to operate the flying devices, equipping them with expertise on government regulations, GPS programming, and data interpretation.

New drone leasing and service companies are emerging as well. Land surveyors are profiting by flying drones over large swaths of land that have hundreds or thousands of land-use rights owners. Zhang Shuo said, “There were not many people in the sector before… Now, a lot of people are doing aerial surveying.”

Demand is also encouraging Chinese UAV manufacturers to move into the agricultural sector and nowhere more so than Shenzhen, the drone capital of the world. Three-fourths of China’s drone manufacturers and research firms are based in Shenzhen and more than 90 percent of the world’s drones are produced there.

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One such Shenzhen-based leader is Dajiang Innovation Technology Co. (DJI), which was founded in 2006 and last year increased its focus on agricultural drones. Its Agras MG-1 can carry 10 kilograms of fertilizer and pesticides. Covering four hectares of land per hour, it is approximately 50 times more efficient than humans, according to company estimates. To increase orders, DJI is creating a service network in China by training 10,000 experts to operate and service the machines.

Additionally, local Shenzhen government officials have cited drone manufacturing as an economic priority. Jin Liang, Chairman of Shenzhen Smart Drone UAV, said, “I believe that government is going to give us support because it helps the people. I think the policies will be favorable to development.”

Because this manufacturing capability is based domestically in China, UAVs can be tailored to the needs of local farmers as opposed to being designed for foreign markets and subsequently adapted for China. UAVs are fabricated and tested based on farmers’ land areas, terrains, crops, and climates in order to produce drones with ideal materials, power sources, sizes, weights, carrying loads, and flying specifications.

Being based in China, when manufactures do err, they can remedy problems quickly. Zhang mentioned one misstep as an example. After testing a UAV in a simulated, indoor environment, it was used outside in Hebei province. There, it flew about 10 meters and could not generate information of value owing to the region’s severe pollution. “We can do the R&D in the factory, but on the farm the reliability is reduced,” he said.

As more manufacturers make agricultural UAVs, which have higher margins than recreational types, the technology will continue being refined for local needs. Zhang said, “Agriculture is a pillar industry in China. We already have 500-600 companies right now providing [UAV] manufacturing and services, but even if we had 1,000, we would still have potential to grow.”

Supporting his view is the fact that, according to industry statistics, drone coverage in China is approximately three percent of cultivated land, much lower than Japan where it is roughly 50 percent. And according to iResearch, the revenues from China’s drone powered solutions in the agriculture, forestry, and plant protection domains will reach an estimated RMB 35 billion ($5.24 billion) by 2025.

“We can carry out agriculture in a way that is totally different than the traditional model and increase prosperity,” Liu of Shenzhen Drone Development Company said. “The power in the sky can bring the power to the land.”

Joshua Bateman is based in Greater China. He can be reached @joshdbateman.