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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

High-tech drones give Japan's ageing farmers a hand

Specialised machines offer relief for rural communities facing a shortage of labour as young people leave for the cities
Nileworks' drone flies over rice plants during testing in Tome, Japan. Reuters

The next generation farmhand in Japan's ageing rural heartland may be a drone.

For several months, developers and farmers in north-east Japan have been testing a new drone that can hover above paddy fields and perform backbreaking tasks in a fraction of the time it takes for elderly farmers.

"This is unprecedented high technology," Isamu Sakakibara, a 69-year-old rice farmer told Bloomberg in the Tome area, a region that has supplied rice to Tokyo since the 17th century.

Developers of the new agricultural drone say it offers high-tech relief for rural communities facing a shortage of labour as young people leave for the cities.

A Japanese woman works in a rice field in Chiba, Japan. AFP

Drone makers have been quick to realise the potential market for agricultural drones. DJI is known for its consumer drones but in 2015 the Chinese company introduced the eight-rotor Agras MG-1 designed for agricultural use.

Last year it unveiled its DJI MG-1. Using a microwave radar, the drone can scan the ground below and maintain the right distance from crops to spray the correct amount of liquid. It flies up to eight metres per second, modulating its spraying for even coverage.

"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 Mr Sakakibara, who is also the head of JA Miyagi Tome, the local agricultural cooperative.

In Japan, it is necessary for unmanned helicopters that spray pesticide, fertiliser or seeds to be registered with a special organisation.

Registration became necessary for drones in 2015. As of January, 673 drones had been registered, up about three times since last March, according to Japan Times.

Pesticide drones use 8 to 10-litre tanks. One hectare of rice paddies requires about 10 litres of pesticide. While it usually takes hours for a farmer to treat a hectare of paddies, a drone can do the job in about 10 minutes.

Video cameras on the drones can be used to check the progress of crops. Computer analysis of the images can tell farmers where growth is slow and provide other valuable information.

Based on such analysis, farmers can change the amounts of fertiliser or make other adjustments to improve quality and shore up yields.

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Researchers are also trying to establish a method to use drones effectively to reduce damage caused by birds and animals. This is done by flying drones at night, when deer and boars are active. The UAVs capture images on the ground using special cameras, and the data help researchers find ways to catch them.

The drone being tested now in north-east Japan, the Nile-T18, was developed by drone start-up Nileworks and recently tested in collaboration with JA Miyagi Tome and trading house Sumitomo, according to Bloomberg.

Nileworks' automated drone flies over rice plants. Reuters

Their aim is to ease the physical burden and improve productivity in rural areas battling decades of falling birth rates and migration to urban areas.

In Tome, farmers are an average 67 to 68 years old and they may only have another 4 to 5 years of farming left, Mr Sakakibara said.

"It's a matter of whether the body breaks down first, or the tractor," he added.

Compared to larger radio-controlled mini-helicopters that cost around ¥15 million (almost Dh500,000) with spray equipment, the Nileworks drone is smaller and cheaper, with a price tag of about ¥4m.

Nileworks is negotiating with authorities to allow operators to fly its drone without a licence. 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," said Nileworks president Hiroshi Yanagishita.

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, jointly owned by trading house Mitsubishi and electronics maker Hitachi, are offering drone services on farms.

Shota Chiba, a 29-year-old farmer in Tome, said technology can modernise farming and lure young people back to the land.

"People still have a strong stereotypical image of farming as a dirty and hard-labour job, but it's no longer all true thanks to gradual mechanisation.

"New technology like diagnostic drones could help change this old image and attract more young people to farming, which I truly enjoy," he said.