The Farmhand Drone

Japanese Farmers Turn to Drones to Overcome Worker Shortage

The uses of drones have developed significantly over the past decade, evolving from high-end military instruments to specific commercial applications. One industry that has been exploiting these flying machines is agriculture, where drones have been deployed to survey the condition of fields. But now a new generation of devices is appearing on the horizon that can do more than just look.

In Japan, several companies are competing to develop high-tech drones for crop spraying and other advanced uses. They’re working to fill a void that small-scale farmers in rural parts of the country are facing: a serious shortage of manpower. As the population ages and younger people move to urban areas, the agricultural sector is being left to tackle acute labour shortages. The drones perform arduous tasks and offer a solution to address the demographic shifts.

Nileworks, founded in 2015, is a company based in Tokyo that designs and manufactures drone technology for the agricultural industry. It builds an automated drone equipped with multiple rotors for spraying crops, and uses image processing and information technology to guide the machine to perform optimally.

The company claims its drone has the ability to recognise the shape of a field and spray at a height of just 30 cm above the ground, thereby reducing drift and wastage. The device can apply pesticides and fertilizer to a rice field in about 15 minutes, a job that takes more than an hour by hand and normally requires farmers to lug around heavy tanks. Nileworks will promote its flying machine to rice farmers in Japan when it launches the product commercially in 2019. It is also hoping to release the device in neighbouring Asian countries as other drone makers enter the market for agricultural drones.

This application highlights the potential of cellular-connected drones for enterprises. Robust connectivity would bring more intelligence to the devices, amplifying their utility. For wireless operators, adoption of drones with LTE and eventually 5G connectivity by enterprises would offer a wide new market of connected devices. Indeed, Qualcomm and other component suppliers are enabling and lobbying for the use of connectivity in drones and other devices in the robot family.

This is one of several interesting implementations of drones that are starting to appear in industrial markets. We expect these will boost interest in connecting drones as everything else becomes connected. The Internet of things will also fly.