Drone technology in agriculture has moved rapidly though the technology hype sequence, from curiosity to irrational exuberance to overblown misfit. In reality, drones at first were a solution in search of a problem, and the recalibration and emerging rebirth is exactly what the drone industry has needed.
A compelling aspect of this rebirth is the use of drones for spray application. What seemed far-fetched a few years ago is now being embraced by some prominent players among drone companies and crop protection manufacturers, resulting in partnerships that are moving the needle on drone-applied inputs.
Currently, and to the best of our knowledge, there are three entities – consumer drone giant DJI’s Agras MG-1P not withstanding – that are driving spray drone research and development in row crop farming: ADAMA via its recently announced partnership with Israel-based Tactical Robotics, Bayer’s CropScience Division and its efforts in China and Japan on small-holder farms, and Rantizo (a seven-employee startup out of Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.).
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Representatives from each company shared some details about their business approaches, use of technologies, and view on the future of drone application in ag. Here’s a look at Bayer CropScience. Be sure to also check out Part One (ADAMA/Tactical Robotics) and Part Three (Rantizo).
Bayer’s CropScience Division
Wendy Poulsen, Head of Field Solutions Technologies with Bayer’s Crop Science Division, says that the German multinational is dedicating significant R&D efforts toward applying crop protection products via drone in China and Japan. The company is targeting smallholder farms, where currently a lot of product is applied via workers with backpack sprayers due to the small, irregularly shaped fields that comprise production farming in those countries.
“First and foremost, at Bayer we’re always working to make sure that our products are keeping up with the latest technologies, and we agree that the evolution of drones across the world is really advancing rapidly,” Poulsen explains. “We’re especially seeing that in China and Japan, where we’ve already been conducting field trials with equipment manufacturers and with smallholder growers to really look at the advantages that we can find in those areas.”
Poulsen says the issue in Asia is largely one of preventing worker exposures to agrichemicals, although over the last 12 months of working on application via drone, the company has discovered that there are other important advantages.
“You compare it to a worker walking through a rice paddy with a backpack sprayer, even just from an ergonomic perspective with the operator, they don’t have to carry a huge amount of liquid on their back,” she adds. “And from a time perspective, they can really get in and get out of the field (using the drones) vs. something that could take a whole day to get through with a backpack. It’s really taken off quickly, and part of that has been the result of robust support from the regulatory agencies in China and Japan. We’re jumping in very quickly to make sure our products have been tested for safety and efficacy in the drone application scenario.”
How will this play out in large row crop fields in the U.S.? Poulsen says that a new approach to application will be required.
“If you look at a comparison to a big tractor that can cover a very large field in a short amount of time, it does begin to look very expensive if you try to do that from a drone,” she concedes. “I think that what drones will offer is, it’s going to flip the whole industry on its head in terms of what we do today.
“You have to think about why we have these big expensive tractors,” she continues. “It’s because oftentimes the times that we can get into the field are very limited.” Spraying when it’s wet and muddy makes it hard to get in and get out, whereas a drone can get into any field in any condition.
And then with the evolution of precision ag and Bayer’s ability to detect problem areas, it may not be necessary to spray the entire field, she adds. “There’s certainly advantages in the U.S. and Brazil, in areas where we have very large fields, but it’s going to cause us to think differently than how we have before.”
Asked whether Bayer was in favor of the large, high-payload drone approach that the ADAMA/Tactical Robotics partnership is leveraging, or whether it prefers tactic of deploying smaller drones swarmed in fleets or teams to cover acres, Poulsen says the jury is still out.
“Honestly, there is probably room for both, we don’t believe that it will be a question of ‘either-or’,” she explains. “We’re looking at all opportunities, so we’ve got to think about this differently.”
The sustainability angle to crop protection product application via drone is without a doubt an appealing potential story for Bayer and its many stakeholders – arguably more so now with the latest news around glyphosate.
“We’re also thinking about sustainability, so the answer is ‘yes’ on that. As we think about our products at Bayer, and as consumers get more aware to these kinds of products, they’re going to demand we use less broadcast application and be more precise in how these things are applied.
“I think technologies like spray drones will offer us the ability to deliver more on sustainable applications for our customers and consumers around the use of less product,” Poulsen notes, “which is something that we as a company have pledged to undertake, and that is one of the things we look at. We believe we can get to something that will be more precise.”
Going forward, Bayer will continue its R&D efforts in China and Japan, “testing existing and new Bayer product formulations in those countries where we are permitted to do so,” as well as working with U.S. EPA going forward on “what they need from us in order for us to conduct similar trials here in the U.S.”
Like her ADAMA counterpart, Poulsen sees a shrinking timeline for spray drone integration in the States.
“Overall, we’re well-positioned to collaborate and learn from our various partners in our R&D efforts, and we’re in that space now where we envision it’s going to be a few years probably before this technology is on acres in the U.S.”