Precision Drones Set to Disrupt Crop Protection Volumes

Disruptive innovation is seldom taken seriously in its infancy. Computer pioneers in the 1970s famously downplayed how much consumers would want microcomputers in their homes until Apple invented the personal computer.

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Newspaper publishers scoffed at internet advertising as “trading dollars for dimes” in the 1990s. In the U.S., print newspaper revenue peaked at about $65 billion in 2000 and fell to about $11 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google capture about 75% of all digital advertising, and Amazon is a distant but significant third. All other publishers are competing for the remaining digital market share.

Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, but it suppressed the technology so the new product wouldn’t erode its film sales. Kodak reached almost $16 billion in sales in 1996 with two-thirds of the global market share but by 2012 had filed for bankruptcy and was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

Agriculture markets and value chains have always been susceptible to disruption from innovative technologies and agronomy. New chemistries, improved seeds, and better practices supplant products and old ways of doing things if they solve problems and bring better value to farm operations.

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Today ag industries are set to react again as technology increasingly replaces chemicals with selective weeding and spraying technologies fueled by cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI). It’s happening now in real-world applications, and to the surprise of many, it’s happening on smallholder farms. Drone-applied fertility, seed for pastures, and crop protection are a reality in Asia, where small farms, limited manpower, and strong technology manufacturing have provided access for many small-scale farmers.

The current applicability is limited but promising. We’re learning quickly from leading markets, primarily Japan and China. Chinese technology company DJI says it has millions of hectares under management this year, and while that might be surprising, there is little doubt this technology will chip away at backpack spraying. About 70% of Japan’s rice is under drone management, according to an Ipsos report, and the volumes of crop protection products are diminishing. Some manufacturers say that drone applications combined with smart spot-spray technology could reduce chemical volumes 95%.

Multinational corporations are already making their moves. Bayer Japan and drone manufacturer XAG are collaborating on application innovations, including ultra-low volume formulations and specialized adjuvants for drone spraying. Adama partnered with Tactical Robotics to develop proprietary equipment, and Sumitomo has partnered with drone manufacturer Nileworks, backed by a public-private investment fund approaching $17 million. This is more than a shiny new toy.

Disruption doesn’t happen instantly — drones will not replace traditional application methods for much of the world until manufacturers give them the capacity, battery life, and reliability that they are accustomed to for large-area applications. But some are inching toward this reality.

KIWI in Massachusetts has developed an agriculture test concept that has a 50-gallon capacity. Others will follow, and it probably won’t take 20 years to disrupt this space.

The only real questions are: “When will the adoption curve impact your business?” and “Are you doing enough to prepare for the disruption ahead?”

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Avatar for Steve Jones Steve Jones says:

I’d like very much to see evidence for the statement that “about 70% of Japan’s rice is under drone management” and to also understand exactly what “drone management” in this context means?

Avatar for David Frabotta David Frabotta says:

The source in this case is Ipsos Business Consulting’s 2017 Commercial Drone Adoption In Agribusiness Report. I’ve added a link in the story for your reference. The second part of your question is a good one: Drone management in this case includes any applied input (seed, fertility, crop protection) and might not necessary include a full-season management program. This 70% number is a result of a confluence of factors: critical labor shortage in agriculture, average farmer age of 65, and manufacturing innovation. Yamaha has been flying its mini-copter for decades, and rice chemistries are self-dispersing, making rotor wash an insignificant factor.