Agricultural drones can literally save the lives of diseased or parched crops thanks to new sensor arrays and more advanced software. In China, farmers are reaping new subsidies from the government to invest in crop-dusting drones.
For many small farmers, offering drone services to neighbors may prove more lucrative then tending to their home fields.
“I was planning to use the drone on my own fields, but nearly 90 percent of farmers in my hometown paid me to use it for crop-dusting operations on their fields,” rice grower Wen Bohua said in an interview with Chinese news site Caixin.
Wen originally bought a $20,000 drone from Guangzhou-based drone manufacturer Xaircraft with the intent of spraying his 50-acre farm. After word spread of his amazing new aerial technique, Wen has now sprayed more than 1,600 acres in his home province of Hubei.
According to the Shenzhen UAV Industry Association, unmanned aerial crop-dusting has skyrocketed from 500 just three years ago to around 8,000 by 2016. Officials expect that number to almost double by year’s end.
However, some environmental experts warn that lax regulations and non-existent industry standards could culminate in an ecological disaster if drone pilots pack dangerous pesticides or fertilizers.
Last year alone, drones crop-dusted more than 4 million acres – more than twice the acreage from 2015, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Chinese drone giant DJI has already staked its industry-leading claim to crop-dusting UAS.
In 2015, the world’s largest drone manufacturer released the octocopter Agras MG-1 for crop-dusting and other ag uses. The drone can carry aloft 2.6 gallons of liquid and can spray 7-10 acres an hour in automatic or manual mode.
DJI marketing material describes the Agras MG-1:
“[Agras’ specs operate] 40 to 60 times faster than manual spraying operations. The intelligent spraying system automatically adjusts its spray according to the flying speed so that an even spray is always applied. This way, the amount of pesticide or fertilizer is precisely regulated to avoid pollution and economize operations.”