Getting precise about agriculture drones, one piece at a time

4 min read
Image credit: BigStock/igor stevanovic

In the first of three articles exploring the agriculture drone industry in China, Sacha Cody discusses the industry’s origins as well as the supply chain forming around the drone’s complex componentry. Read part two here.

China’s agriculture drone industry traces its lineage to a cotton farmer in northwest Xinjiang province. Frustrated his drone kept crashing, the farmer made several phone calls to the manufacturer. They dispatched a local team to investigate what they believed was a simple technical issue. They discovered the farmer was attaching a carton of pesticides to his drone and attempting to spray his fields; that was why it kept crashing. At the time, individuals could only purchase drones designed to take cool selfies, not carry a heavy tub of liquid. So while the farmer’s drone could not be fixed, a new industry and accompanying supply chain—explored below—was born.

Or so the story goes. Executives at industry mainstay DJI, the country’s largest drone player, and XAG, another leading manufacturer, told me the same story about their own engineers while I was investigating Chinese intelligent computing industries and cultures at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The similarities between the stories—shared with me at different times by people who did not know each other—is remarkable.

Regardless of whether there is any such farmer, the story is important because it situates the moment drones began flying over Chinese farms. As a myth—that one Xinjiang farmer compelled DJI and XAG, and others, to recognize the lucrative market for agriculture drones and propel themselves to develop a product for the Chinese farmer—it is a beautiful one.

As it suggests, more than money motivates these companies. Agriculture technology pioneers feel pride and achievement knowing they are assimilating two zeitgeists of today’s China: intelligent computing business models and the enduring aspiration to “fix” China’s rural economy. For decades, Chinese parents berated their children, “Study hard or you’ll end up a peasant!” Today, with a slight twist, they say, “Study hard and you can help the peasants!”

Getting precise

Ninety-eight percent of China’s 425 million agricultural workers are smallholders. Many are entering into contractual relationships with industrial agriculture organizations. Since the mid-1990s, some farmers started experimenting with Precision Agriculture (PA) technologies. PA enables site-specific crop management using the information and intelligent computing technologies. Geographical Information Systems (GIS)—tools that allow farmers to view and analyze intricate information-rich maps of their farmland—was an early PA technology; drones are one of the latest.

Today, drones operate over approximately 4% of China’s farmland. That’s about 4.5 million hectares, 45,000 km2 or an area slightly larger than Denmark. Many are deployed in Heilongjiang province in the northeast and Xinjiang province in the northwest; here, farms are long and wide plains that are easy to survey and spray. But every province has farms with drones above and the market is growing; by 2025, it will be valued at over $5 billion.

One piece at a time

An agriculture drone is an assemblage of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of components. Each component works in concert with others. Competition drives firms like DJI and XAG to continually innovate. Some components are designed and manufactured in-house. Most, however, are sourced from an expanding and evolving supply chain. There is probably a market for every single component.

Let’s begin with propellers. Agriculture drones perform better when propellers are tipped. This design, called winglets in the airline industry, is observed in nature; birds curl their wings when flying. Not only do winglets reduce agriculture drone noise, they also assist in-flight stability and are more power efficient. But propellers are often the first thing to break in a crash. As drone manufacturers release new models regularly, the design and manufacture of increasingly better propellers is core to their supply chain.

Next, motors. Quadcopter drones are common for consumer drones, but agriculture drones have more motors because they carry more weight; I have seen models with five and even six motors. The maximum weight an agriculture drone can carry is 10 kilograms in 2018; now it is 16 and this is still increasing. As such, manufacturers are always looking for lighter yet more powerful (and quieter) motors.

Rotating nozzles on the underside of each motor sprays the pesticides. These nozzles seem simple but are in fact engineering marvels and most likely patent-protected. The sophistication of nozzle grooves—width, curvature and surface pattern—determine the volume of pesticides released as well as the precise aim. Manufacturers are always experimenting with different designs to improve precision and save costs.

Finally, pesticides. Pesticides are diluted for manual application. This is for safety reasons as well as the fact that Chinese farmers tend to “spray and pray.” By contrast, agriculture drones operate using digital maps and complex algorithms to achieve precision, but they cannot carry the same volume of liquid a human can. Because of this, agriculture drones use highly concentrated pesticide formulations that can be dangerous if humans come into contact with it. This arrangement requires new packaging as well as an overhaul of transportation and handling practices.

The agriculture drone industry is taking off in China. Innovation along the supply chain—propellers, motors, nozzles, pesticides, and more—will grow the industry and benefit from it.

In this article, we have explored the agriculture drone industry’s origins as well as the supply chain forming around the drone’s complex componentry. In the next and second article in the series, we will investigate the industry’s business and social ecosystem as well as its many players.