(Image credit: BigStock/igor stevanovic)

Farmland coverage from unmanned aerial system (UAS) fleets from Chinese agricultural drone maker XAG will triple this year in Xinjiang’s cotton defoliation operation, the company said on Monday

Why it matters: Agricultural technology, or agritech, is an important part of the central government’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, which will help improve safety, productivity, and thus profits in rural China, home to the country’s poorest populations.

  • Xinjiang’s cotton crop is increasingly harvested mechanically, a change which accounted for 30% of the harvest in 2018. The vast majority of China’s cotton crop is grown in the Xinjiang region.
  • The firm said the drones are a “harvest aid” that serves as an alternative to tedious, expensive labor and increases harvest yield. 
  • Drones are less destructive than heavy machinery typically required to distribute adequate spray coverage, which XAG says could result in the loss of RMB 16,000 (around $2,260) to RMB 19,200 per 65-hectare cotton field. 
  • Growth potential for the sector is “huge” as drones are only used on 5% of China’s farmland, XAG vice president Justin Gong told Asia Nikkei Review in March.

Details: More than 1,500 drone pilots and 1,000 crop protection teams with approximately 3,000 sets of XAG P Series Plant Protection UAS have been working since August on what XAG calls the “world’s largest cotton defoliation operation that involves the use of fully autonomous drones.”

  • It is estimated that the drones will have defoliated an excess of 1.3 million hectares this year by the end of the operation, a 200% increase from 0.45 million hectares in 2018. 
  • The system can reduce agricultural water use by 90% and defoliant use by 30%, according to XAG. 
  • One drone can cover 60 hectares per hour, a job that would normally take 60 farmers to complete. 

Context: The drone maker’s Xinjiang project follows two recent partnerships with pharmaceutical giant Bayer, with the companies teaming up on a new AI-powered UAS system as well as an effort to fight the crop-devouring fall armyworm.

  • DJI is XAG’s primary competitor in the industrial drone industry, which accounts for more than half of the global $9 billion drone market.  
  • In February, DowDuPont’s agriculture division Corveta Agriscience deployed 400 DJI drones across its supply chain and agronomy teams in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Europe. 
  • Both XAG and DJI have established education programs to expand their networks of professionally trained agricultural drone operators. 

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