Over the past three years, drone sales have reached new heights. Chances are, you know someone who has bought one or received one as a gift. While they are great for aerial photography and fun to fly around haphazardly, their practical uses go far beyond.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used for military purposes in the mid-1800s (balloon bombers) and World War I (pilotless aircraft). Today, a popular form of UAV is the drone, a small autonomous craft that is being applied to such diverse industries as real estate, construction, and agriculture. In Japan, an aging population means that the number of farmers is dwindling. As fewer young people take over from their elders, new technologies such as drones are becoming a central part of agriculture.
According to the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of International Affairs and Communications, forestland and fields account for the largest portion of the nation’s surface area—about 250,000 square kilometers or 67 percent. Another 50,000 square kilometers—or 12 percent—is used for agriculture. Collectively, these areas cover nearly 80 percent of the country.
That’s a lot of land to manage with a dwindling labor force.
Exacerbating the matter, in 2016, the child population (0–14 years) was 15.78 million (12.4 percent of the total population), the lowest level on record. Those aged 65 years and over have outnumbered the child population since 1997. The productive-age population (15–64 years) has been in decline since 1993, now totaling 76.56 million, or 60.3 percent.
Labor solutions have never been more necessary, and drone technology is proving to be one solution for farming.
Yamaha began developing pilotless drones in 1983 at the request of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and completed its first utility-use unmanned helicopter, the R-50, in 1987.
This technology led to the R-MAX, an unmanned helicopter introduced in 1997. “They have been heavily utilized in spraying rice paddies,” said Brad Anderson, manager of Yamaha Motor Corporation, USA’s Unmanned Systems Division. “Here in the United States, our initial target has been vineyards—specifically vineyards on difficult terrain, such as steep hillsides.”
OPTiM Corporation’s Agri Drone is another product making headway in this space. It was originally created as part of a three-way collaborative agreement with Saga Prefecture and Saga University.
“The overall goal of the agreement is to modernize the agricultural industry in Saga, and drones were seen as a way to reduce labor and improve crop care,” Leslie James, a member of the promotion team of the Platform Department at OPTiM Corporation Tokyo Head Office, told The ACCJ Journal.
The technology can be used to survey crops and take photos of plants, allowing farmers to find insects, pest damage, weeds, diseased plants, and mold. The Agri Drone goes one step further. The “pinpoint insect extermination” feature allows farmers to attach a pesticide bottle to the drone and spray only areas where insects are detected, reducing labor and the amount of chemicals used.
Another feature that James highlighted is the chemical-free bug zapper attachment, which hangs from the drone as it flies low over crops. Using it, farmers can eliminate more than 50 common varieties of pests that come out only at night. A method for targeting white-backed plant-hoppers—insects that are particularly harmful to rice—is also under development. This technology will be especially useful in Japan, where rice is so critical to the market.
Kiichiro Katsumata, president and chief operating officer of Drone Japan Co., Ltd., spoke to The ACCJ Journal about the company’s Drone Rice Project. So far, the company has contracts with seven farmers to cultivate organic rice with the help of drones.
“People’s image of drones is that they are utilized for chemical spraying,” he said. “However, drones are gradually being used for crop growth and sculpting services, using a multi-spectrum camera.”
This camera can show what parts of the crops are growing well and which aren’t, using a simple map. This technology, he explained, is particularly helpful for what he calls “difficult” farming—namely, organic.
“Not all organic rice can be harvested each year. In fact, the average [yield] is 50 percent of what is harvested from chemically-treated rice.”
“In order to harvest more, organic farmers are also using organic fertilizers, and the drones can show which parts need to be fertilized.”
Katsumata is looking to grow the number of farmers involved to more than 10 by April this year.
Because drone technology changes so rapidly, the company uses various types of tech and won’t commit to one product. However, drone development has not moved as quickly in the agriculture industry as it has in others. Katsumata believes this is beginning to change.
“From now on, drone agriculture technology will be a major area, because the world will be suffering from food crises and land for cultivation is declining rapidly because of environmental issues.”
James mentions two ways that the Agri Drone helps reduce labor for farmers. First, it takes photos of crops and the analysis can be done by one person. Second, the footage helps to map out problems. “The farmer can go straight to the problem detected, requiring fewer staff overall.”
For Anderson, Yamaha’s R-MAX provides an alternative to hand spraying, and the use of an unmanned helicopter is something he believes is financially viable to reduce labor pressure. Further than its use on vineyards in California’s Napa Valley, he foresees the technology being applied to other high-value speciality crops.
One major concern that Katsumata is trying to address is the size of the rice production market. The website World Rice Production shows that Japan produced 7.6 million metric tons in June 2017, far behind many of its Asian counterparts and not far from the 6,382,000 metric tons harvested in the United States. Improving rice exports may help offset shrinking consumption in Japan, which is declining by 80,000 tons per year.
One reason Katsumata is intent on taking Japanese organic rice abroad is a change in the nation’s culinary preferences. “The Japanese are shifting food culture from rice-based to wheat,” he explained. “So, even though we have lots of rice farmers in Japan, that population is rapidly declining because Japanese people do not eat [so much] rice today, and young people especially are shifting their food culture to more Western foods.”
He pointed out, however, that sushi is a popular food in China, the United States, and Europe; so Japanese rice has potential markets abroad.
The cost of drones is, of course, an issue, so Katsumata is looking to connect with new investors. “If I can engage with high-conscious customers and partners worldwide, Japanese farmers will be motivated to grow rice organically.”
Attracting younger generations of farmers is a continuous problem. Anderson believes that the piloting of drones is a skill set the younger generation finds attractive. “We feel that introducing a new skill set such as this could provide some benefit to the shrinking labor pool within agriculture. While many people do not have any interest in hand spraying a field, they may have interest in piloting an unmanned helicopter to do the spraying.”
OPTiM have an agreement with Saga University to encourage more students to major in agriculture and to stay in the area for farming after they graduate.
“We also work with students and faculty in development and testing,” James explained. “We hope that this agriculture technology can increase the appeal of farming for young people.”
But there are challenges to using new technology in farming, and Anderson sees three audiences for which education is critical. “The education extends to operators of the equipment and teaching them how to properly and safely perform a spray application; to the customer so they are aware of the details of the operations; and to regulators so they are aware of the operation and know how to properly regulate it.”
OPTiM is working with local governments to help educate about the benefits of drone usage, and is working with Fujieda City in Shizuoka and Obihiro City in Hokkaido Prefecture to find farmers to train.
The company recently announced the introduction of the Smart Agriculture Alliance to encourage anyone interested in working with OPTiM on agricultural solutions to reach out to them. They are offering participants drone flying lessons, use of their analysis apps, support for agricultural tech trials, and more. “We have already made some partnerships through this campaign, including with a local bank, winery, herb farm, and farm management company,” James said.
The hope is that this will improve crop yield and even increase the selling price and value of the crops.
“We also think that drones will be able to scan for more varied information. For example, our Agri Drone can take multi-spectrum images, such as near-infrared and thermal. Future drones may be able to record the height of a crop from above, or view root structures.”
Katsumata also said one of his core focuses is education. “Sustainability with technology is inevitable and mandatory for the future—especially for the next generation of farmers.” This is why he has partnered with schools nationwide—from junior high to university level—to help teach students how drones and artificial intelligence can be used for agriculture in the Big Data era. Particularly for Japanese rice, this technology can help make the sector more competitive.
“The Japanese Rice Project is about finding the Japanese traditional mind again, not just technology, selling, and agriculture. It’s an education for future farmers.”
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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