rice planting drone

This rice planting drone could mitigate China’s labor shortage

Amidst fears that an ever-decreasing agricultural workforce could undermine future production and supply of food, a rice planting drone might save the day.

XAG, a Chinese manufacturer of agricultural drones based in Guangzhou, Guangdong, just demonstrated a drone that can seed rice.

The drone maker, formerly known as XAircraft, hosted a rice direct seeding demonstration in April at a farm in China’s ‘Happy Farms’, one of the largest modern agricultural parks in the world.

As part of the demonstration, two workers spread 5kg of rice seeds to demonstrate how laborious the traditional process is. After all, it involves walking slowly through waterlogged paddy fields — feet swamped in the mud — in a laborious and lengthy process that takes 25 minutes to cover 1,200 square meters of land.

XAG then followed up the human demonstration by showing how drones can do the same work— in less time. They had a drone dispense rice seeds from the air, following a pre-programmed route.

The same amount of work took only two minutes. 

XAG says that on average, one XAG agricultural drone can seed 50,000 square meters of land per hour, a process that would otherwise take 50 to 60 field workers to complete. 

The rice planting drones could help solve troubling labor dependence problems in China as farm workers age or move out of rural areasand into cities. China’s rural population has substantially reduced by 23% in the past two decades, while those aged over 55 constitute one third of the agricultural workforce, according to National Bureau of Statistics data.

And it’s not just China that’s seeing a severe labor shortage in agriculture.

“People in the U.S. and EU no longer want to work on farms due to factors such as low farm incomes, its lack of reliability and seasonal nature, and its demanding and risky nature,” according to a 2015 Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report. “Today, less than 1% of the U.S. population claims farming as an occupation – with the average number of U.S. farmworkers having declined from 3.4 million last century to 1 million today.”

rice planting drone
The XAG Drone JetSeed Module conducts direct seeding over a rice paddy.

How the rice planting drone works

The method by which drones plant rice seeds is based on something called direct seeded rice, a process of sowing seeds directly into the fields without nursery cultivation and transplantation.

Some say it’s a more sustainable alternative to conventional planting, which can deteriorate soil health and require intensive water use.

With drones, rice seeds can distribute rice seeds directly into the paddy fields without seedling transplant using something called JetSeed, an intelligent granule spreading system mounted on the bottom of the XAG agricultural UAS.

The device essentially generates high-speed airflow to shoot the proper amount of seeds accurately into the targeted topsoil.

Most of the flights are done at night for a couple reasons.

“Aerial spreading is more precise and even after sunset when it is usually less windy than during daytime,” said Li Qisheng, a drone operator in Anhui, China.

It also just allows more operations to take place — as drones can fly at night, when humans might be asleep.

After the initial planting stage, other agricultural drones can follow up by spraying crops with pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides.

XAG said they’re seeing rapid option in China’s main rice planting areas, adding that their drone seeding products have covered over 650 million square metres of rice fields in China’s 11 provinces.

Drone industry experts have long been hopeful that drones would prove to be useful in agriculture. After all — there’s no fear of flying over people, and few large objects to worry about drones crashing into.

Major drone makers like DJI, Sentera, senseFly and Delair have gotten into building agricultural drones. Beyond planting, drones have been used in agricultural spaces for mapping, crop dusting, irrigation management, livestock monitoring and more.

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