Drones may take the place of workers with chemical spraying backpack units in hard to reach places amid vines, trees and paddies

From the backpack to the air

by Andy Bryenton

Areas, where backpack-carried pesticide and insecticide spraying was once commonplace, will soon echo to the whir of tiny rotors if drone pilots get their way. As debate swirls over drafting laws and guidelines around how best to deploy chemicals for agriculture and horticulture from unmanned aerial vehicles, industry leaders are not slowing their development of robotic sprayers.

Think of tight spaces between vines or under trees, where even a small tractor or quad cannot easily travel. Then imagine eradicating the need for labour-intensive spraying work; work, which puts people in close proximity to chemicals that require safety gear to handle. Using a robot in these situations makes good sense, say advocates of drone sprayers. The area in which these machines make even more sense is in the East, where rice paddies have long been a labour-intensive work environment.

In Japan, this has seen the rise of drone tech overflying the flooded fields. Yamaha, who were early to the game with their R-Max mini helicopter, has recently revealed a new contender, the YMR-08, armed with coaxial rotors and a 10-litre spray tank. Yamaha bosses estimate that between this new heavy hitter and their previous remote chopper drone models, 2,500 ag robots are in the air over the land of the rising sun at any given time, covering 42 per cent of all Japanese rice paddies and delivering sprays to quash pests and boost growth.

A short hop across the sea to China and an even bigger investment in drone tech is underway. Market leader in the People’s Republic, DJI, claim that they have 10,000 operators qualified to pilot their Agras MG-1 series eight-rotor drones. The next step may very well be autonomous flight, tapped into a network of sensors which monitor plants in real-time.

New Zealand has already welcomed the first horticultural drones. The numbers in the air are set to spike as their utility and practicality becomes apparent. For industries like viticulture, kiwifruit, stone fruit and some agrarian crops, the ability to switch out the bulky backpack for a nimble aerial robot may prove more than a little tempting.