Future of farming: smart autonomous drones with eyes on the field


Farmers have another tool to help them in the field.

With smartphones in hand, tech-savvy farmers are able to fly heavy duty drones out to do everything from crop dusting to surveying the health of the plants.

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And with smarter software, drones can do more autonomously, making the process more efficient and at far lower cost than hiring a specialised pilot to man an aircraft over the fields.

Only 2 percent of farmers in China use drones.

While makers have offered agriculture drones to the market for two decades now, adoption is tiny, according to Xaircraft, a Chinese maker that's starting to expand into the U.S.

It estimates only 2 percent of farmers in China use drones, in part because of lower awareness, and because the technology wasn't that user-friendly before.

But now with autonomous UAVs and smartphone apps, it's all set to change, a spokesperson said. To operate one of their drones, farmers just need to draw out the shape of the land on their phones, and the drone will do the rest — including returning to its base station.

The Guangzhou-headquartered firm has so far trained over 1,000 drone operators in its homeland, and is hoping to lower the learning curve for newbies via free online training courses.

Next step up: Data

For farmers that already know how to fly a drone, they can move up the technology ladder and analyse data collected about their plantations.

Poladrone is a Malaysian startup that's writing software to analyse palm oil plantations. Looking at imagery taken from above, it can count the number of oil palms, determine crop health, and alert farmers if it detects blocked pathways.

Founder, Jinxi Cheong, explained that image recognition software can figure out the health of a plant based on factors such as the colour of its leaves.

Up to 10 percent of the oil palm's fruit go to waste because it's a laborious process to judge the health of the plants, and fraught with human error.

Poladrone doesn't make its own drones; it relies on off-the-shelf DJI Phantoms, running flight-control app Litchi to automate the flight paths.

What we're focused on is something that's very simple and easy for [plantation owners] to deploy," Cheong said. "Something that anyone can use, without much training."

"It's still a very traditional industry, and we need to go one step at a time," he adds. "It's not like an industry that's going to [jump at] adopting new technology — it's going to be a 5-10 year process."


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