How a China drone maker aims to make agriculture smarter

December 24, 2019 11:27
A drone from XAG, one of China's biggest agricultural drone makers, which aims to provide farmers drone technology solutions ranging from plant protection, crop monitoring and farm management. Photo: XAG

A drone farming revolution is on the way in China, a Guangzhou-based drone firm suggests, as it waxes eloquent on the benefits of drones that can help farmers monitor their crops better and also ensure greater efficiency in seeds and fertilizer arrangements.

XAG, which claims it has over 40,000 drones in operation every day and that it serves more than a million farmers, says drone use will jump in the farming sector in China in the coming years due to labor shortage and the population ageing issue.

"For now, many farmers, with heavy tanks of pesticides strapped to their backs, still have to spray pesticides and chemicals by themselves on a large piece of farmland, without any protection. It is not just that the labor process is terribly exhausting, but that the farmers can be most at risk of poisoning and even death because of their exposure to the chemicals,” Anne Xu Qian-qian, XAG’s head of global communications said in an interview with EJ Insight.

"That is one major problem that XAG aims to solve by producing drones for agricultural use.”

Starting by producing consumer drone devices for video shooting in 2007, XAG later shifted its focus to developing drone technology solutions for industrial use, especially targeting the labor-starved agricultural industry. After running trial operations with local farmers in Xinjiang in 2013, the company released a series of agricultural drones in 2015, which are mainly used in pesticide and fertilizer spraying.

Through XAG’s mobile app, a user can set the flight operation details of his or her drone, such as date and time schedule, speed, flight route and area, as well as pesticide spraying intervals, etc. The drone will be automatically lifted, launched and landed according to the pre-set schedule, and the user will be notified through the app after the drone finishes its flight task.

XAG developed its own cloud computing technology and artificial intelligence-powered image recognition technology, according to Xu, enabling its drones to collect images and relevant data to perform analyses and provide reports after its flight tasks, performing field monitoring, mapping and surveying, among other functions.

There are over 40,000 XAG drones sold and in operation in mainland China now, according to Xu.

As one of its flagship products, XMission, is specialized in surveying with its RTK (Real-Time Kinetic) flight control system, which provides XMission with centimeter-level navigation for fully autonomous flights in various control schemes, while the other one, P Series Plant Protection drones, is equipped with rotary atomizing spraying system, which allows it to spray liquid onto needing crop with uniformity and precision, on different landscapes such as plain field, mountain, or terrace.

"Our products are now used in farmland all across China, such as rice farms in northeast China, wheat farms in central China, paddy fields in the eastern coast, cotton agriculture in Xinjiang,” said Xu, adding that agricultural drones are best applied in large-sized farmlands as a substitute to deploying tractors to spray pesticides, which can easily crush the crops in the area resulting in losses to farmers.

With a growing emphasis on enhancing agriculture efficiency and an increase in venture funding for development of agricultural drones, key players like Chinese commercial drone giant DJI are flocking into the market, heating up the competition in agricultural drones.

Xu remains confident that XAG can stay ahead of the competition. "The flight control system of the majority of drones in the market tends to be designed for hobbyists and individuals, emphasizing the control, flexibility, and how it delivers the best entertainment experience, which is different from us. Focusing on the agricultural use scenarios like spraying pesticides, we attach great importance to enhancing the drone’s ability to perform precise and consistent flight paths according to the flight schemes."

Accounting for over half of agricultural drone sales in China according to its estimation, XAG has expanded beyond mainland China in recent years, and its products are now available in over 20 countries and regions globally, including Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, though overseas markets remain small in terms of contribution to revenue.

“Our business in mainland China still accounts for 90 percent of the total revenue," said Xu.

"It takes a long time for the agricultural market to adapt to technology," she said. "For retail technology devices, say, Apple launching a new iPhone, mass consumers will quickly switch to the new model. In contrast, it takes time for the adoption of agricultural technology products. The market is still in its early stage, with many farmers actually having no knowledge or experience in using agricultural drones.”

Moving forward, XAG is enhancing its drone technology design on the hardware side, to expand the application of its drones in different farming landscapes, such as mountains and highlands where high-value crops such as oranges and grapes are grown but are difficult for human access.

"By deploying our drones in surveying tasks, its AI-powered image recognition technology is capable to recognize the distance and diameter of each fruit tree, mapping each fruit tree in specific farmland. This provides the user with a set of standardized, detailed farmland data showing the size, soil quality, geographical environment, planting conditions, etc.”

“The set of data can be used for banks and other financial institutions to evaluate the asset value of the farmland, as well as the credit ratings of the farmland owner, when the owner applies for loans and other financial services.”

XAG has partnered with e-commerce giant Alibaba Group to explore and develop services around the use of the farmland data in the financial field, according to Xu.

In the long run, XAG aims to bring "smart agriculture" to China. With a massive pool of data collected by its drones from the users, XAG can establish a database about agricultural inputs and outputs covering regions across the country, thereby providing more accurate and timely agricultural market figures and indicators.

“In the long term, these real-time agricultural data and figures would be significant to the overall agricultural commodity market, they can be used in industry forecasts,” said Xu.

“We don't position our company as a drone company, but as an ‘agricultural technology company’. We are integrating multiple technology solutions and businesses to achieve a huge vision.”

– Contact [email protected]


An XAG drone sprays crops. Photo: XAG

EJ Insight writer