Nileworks Inc's automated drone flies over rice plants, spraying pesticide while diagnosing growth of individual rice stalks, during a demonstration in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo: REUTERS/Yuka Obayashi
tech

Drones offer high-tech help to Japan's aging farmers

15 Comments
By Yuka Obayashi

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

For several months, developers and farmers in northeast 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," said Isamu Sakakibara, a 69-year-old rice farmer 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.

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

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.

The Nile-T18 was developed by drone start-up Nileworks Inc and recently tested in collaboration with JA Miyagi Tome and trading house Sumitomo Corp.

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 67-68 years old and they may only have another 4-5 years of farming left, 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 yen with spray equipment, the drone is smaller and cheaper, with a price tag 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 analyze 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 Corp and electronics maker Hitachi Ltd, 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 mechanization," Chiba said.

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

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2018.

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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And the drones will only keep getting better. Within 10 years drones will be killing insects directly without pesticides and they'll be picking certain fruits, vegetables and berries. It all comes down to using video recognition, sensors, outfitting tools and a lot of programming. We need battery technology that is 10 times better than today's best. I think super capacitors will be the best way to go. Environmentally friendly and recharge quickly. There are various new ideas on the drawing board as I write this. I keep my hopes up battery wise but remain skeptical.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

4 million yen?

Thats about a couple of years income on the average farm here!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

kurisupisu, you forgot that the govt will hand out massive subsidies to farmers, the way they buy them lots of other equipment already. Gotta keep those food prices artificially high!

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Great news. Robots and Drones are the future of hi-tech Japanese farms. And there are still some people who argue Japan needs to accept immigrants to work on these farms! Every manual labor job in Japan can be done by a Robot, Drone or Artificiall Intelligence.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

4 million yen?

Thats about a couple of years income on the average farm here!

Very true, but that highlights the problem with Japanese rice growing. People are using industrial methods but not on an industrial scale. A farmer will have a (small) planter, a (small) tractor, and a (small) harvester, but only two or three fields and so use them for a few hours each each year. If a drone can spray a field in 15 minutes, it should be doing a hundred fields a week and for more than one week. For cereal growing in First World countries, consolidation into large enough farms for industrial methods to be beneficial is inevitable. If people want small farms, they should intensively grow vegetables.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Yawn. These drones are a minor improvement. There is fantastic opportunity in ag tech but I fear Japan will miss out again. Kubota's Agri Robo autonomous tractor is just a modified L series tractor which is too small for field operations in most broad acre farming and too big for Japanese rice paddies. Besides, the design is a desperate play. They need to ditch the cab and just put a power unit on wheels. For Japan they need an M series traction unit with interchangeable equipment. The DOT tractor from Canada looks like a winner. Japan needs to copy it and scale it down before somebody else does. The biggest opportunity in autonomous equipment in Japan is small scale, like the Kubota JoyWalk rice planter. It would bring a lot of small abandoned rice fields back into production. Yanmar is going down the same road as Kubota, autonomous tractors with cabs.

The big questions facing farmers with equipment these days are, who owns the data and the right-to-repair. The data is extremely valuable. Do farmers in Japan own it or even have access to it? Can any mechanic fix the equipment and plug in a laptop to it or only OEM dealers? Can farmers download the diagnostic tool and clear a system warning?

Drones are just a toy. The real innovations in ag are CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing and RNAi sprays. I have not heard if Japan is going down the same crazy train road as Europe or if they are going to allow their farmers to compete and have access to these technologies.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Obviously, there are better ways.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The first Drones used for farming were invented in Israel. Sold to India and many countries in Asia. It’s abit strange that Japan take credit of someone else invention.

lol ... even google knows it!

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

amazon package delivery?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I hope the 80 year old farmer isn’t controlling the drones.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Saiko, thanks for your post. Embarrassed to say I'd never heard of a "supercapacitor." Those interested can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercapacitor

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hope to see the farm sector develop over Tokyu Hands next few decades. It’ll be vital as Tokyu Hands world population keeps growing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Drones on the farms just like the drones in the big cities.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Great news. Robots and Drones are the future of hi-tech Japanese farms.

J farms are definitely not hi-tech compared to other nations in the developed world..

And there are still some people who argue Japan needs to accept immigrants to work on these farms!

These 'some people' are decision makers with the same nationality as the forum's clown ..

Every manual labor job in Japan can be done by a Robot, Drone or Artificiall Intelligence.

Not yet, but writing comics on an internet forum can be done by a robot :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The first Drones used for farming were invented in Israel. Sold to India and many countries in Asia. It’s abit strange that Japan take credit of someone else invention.

The article is not about who 'invented' drones used for farming, doesn't mention it and either is anyone taking credit.

It's called an innovation around the drone invented for private use in 2007 by an American.

lol ... even google knows it!

The problem with search machines is that some people can't interpret the search results..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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