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XAG Drones Tested, Add Sweet Spot for South Africa’s Sugar Crisis

2 July 2020, KwaZulu-Natal – Drones, with specialty spraying technology, was deployed for a recent sugarcane ripening trail in South Africa, showing an evident increase in the amount of sugar extracted from these canes. This might signal a potential improvement in profit margin for the cane growers, who have been incurring loss from the country’s ailing sugar industry. Primarily grown in tropical and subtropical regions, sugarcane is the type of perennial, high-value cash crop that serves as juicy fruit as well as the major feedstock for sugar production. South Africa ranks the world’s top 15 sugar-producing countries that provide cost-effective, high-quality sugar products. However, due to a series of interweaving threats, mainly the influx of cheap imports and the imposition of sugar tax, South Africa’s $833 million sugar industry has been struggling to stay competitive in the global market. Crop-spraying drones, meanwhile, gently tap in and get prepared to give a new lease of life to this industry. XAG P Series drone on the work of sugarcane ripening in SA Drones outperform to reap recoverable value This June, in Seafield Farm, located at the Midlands South region of KwaZulu-Natal, a new round of sugarcane harvest arrived. What made this harvest season special was that a commercial ripening trial was conducted for the first time to compare the efficacy of drone and helicopter. Ripening refers to the process of applying chemical ripener to enhance the content of sucrose in the sugarcane plants usually six to nine weeks before harvest. The ripening application has been widely adopted as routine management that proves to effectively improve cane quality and sugar yield. In this trial, different fields of the Seafield Farm were selected, each of which divided into two areas between 1 to 5 hectares assigned to different ripener applications. The drone used was XAG P20, which carried a custom spraying attachment and 12-litre smart liquid tank designed in a modular fashion. It followed the pre-set flight route, operated at a fixed height 2 to 3 metres above the crops, and sprayed accurately into the target fields. Results show that the traditional manned helicopter was considerably outperformed by XAG drone in both cane yield and quality of the harvested crops.  The areas ripened with drones had a small, yet significant 1% increase in recoverable value (RV), compared to those ripened with helicopter. In South Africa, RV is the accepted measure of the amount of sugar recovered from every ton of cane crushed in the mills.  Seafield Farm trial: The left fields showed stripes of uneven ripening caused by helicopter overspray “This means a lot to us. With higher sugar extracted from every ton of sugarcane, we get paid higher and my farms become more profitable,” said Kim Hein, the licensed operator of XAG drone as well as cane grower who has been testing the feasibility of drone spraying solution in sugarcane cultivation.  Under the RV Cane Payment System since 2000, the South African farmers are remunerated for their harvested sugarcane based on recoverable value. As RV% generally falls within 9% to 14%, the more than 1% increase is a relatively satisfactory progress for sugarcane growers to obtain a greater return on investment. This smallest breakthrough could mean a great deal to individual farmers facing an ailing sugar industry.  The recent two years have seen a considerable drop in the market price of RV, which means that farmers are paid less for the sugarcane of the same recoverable value. This is largely attributed to the flood of low-priced sugar import and the introduction of tax on sugar-sweetened drinks (or health promotion levy) that brings down the demand for local sugar. Small-scale growers being the early adopters Despite the market chaos of the sugar industry, South Africa has granted the legal take-off of agricultural drones last year which could innovatively transform the labour-intensive farming ecosystem. Kim Hein, the man behind the Seafield Farm ripening trial, has purchased agricultural drones from XAG to tend its self-owned 200ha sugarcane field as well as those of his farmer counterparts.  “Drone, imagery, and smart agriculture system can help us solve many environmental and labour problems,” Hein said. Drones with precision spraying ability can address the increasing pressure to use less chemical, while reducing labour usage to tackle the rising labour cost that is disproportionate to the quality of work done. As the advantages of drone technology start to shine through, there has been a growing acceptance of drone-based treatment by cane farmers, who has been dealing with difficulties to manage this specialty crop.  Sugarcane plants can reach 3 to 7 metres high, that ground equipment such as tractors are inapplicable. Manual option with knapsack sprayer can expose field workers directly to the chemicals. This leaves manned aerial approaches, such as helicopter and airplane, to be used for sugarcane ripening over the past 20 years.  An agricultural drone designed for sloped terrain According to Heim, helicopter spraying can treat large areas very quickly, but the downside of it was that most sugarcane fields are quite small in size. According to the South Africa Sugar Association (SASA), small-scale farmers constitute 90% of the nation’s 22,949 registered sugarcane growers, predominantly located in two provinces namely Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. They form the backbone of the sugar industry value chain. “We usually end up with problem with the helicopter company which offers a minimum spray of 50 hectares a day, but we only want to do 2 to 3 hectares a week. This does not allow any flexibility in the ripening process which means the outcome might fail,” explained by Hein. Large airplane and helicopter can only be subject to blanket spray, which means they work on huge areas at a time that does not match well with farmers’ harvesting schedule.  Instead, the drones that Hein uses are designed by XAG to facilitate precision applications in agriculture. They can smoothly operate on various terrains, no matter steep slopes or irregular-shaped plots, which are common places where most South African sugarcane plants are grown. Owing to real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning and the special atomised nozzles, XAG drones can spray more precisely and evenly on target areas without affecting the neighbouring fields not yet ready for ripening. This help cut down the use of chemicals by 30% and converse agricultural water by 90%. Get ready for the Sugar Master Plan The introduction of precision drones into farming complements government’s determination to rejuvenate the sugar industry. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition has announced the Sugar Masterplan this June that marks a major milestone in efforts to ensure the health and longevity of the industry.  The sugar industry makes important contributions to South Africa’s economic activities and rural employment. Its direct and indirect employment is estimated at 435,000 jobs, as well as representing over 11% of the total agricultural workforce. However, based on the SASA statistics, the annual sugar production has declined by 25% over the past 20 years, while the number of sugarcane farmers experienced a decline by 60% along with a reduction by 45% in sugar industry-related jobs.  The Sugar Masterplan aims to reverse this industry downtrend and protect tens of thousands of livelihoods in rural areas. As SA Cane Growers’ Association chairperson Rex Talmage introduced, the warmly welcomed plan includes the actions to enhance import protection, diversify sugar by-product production (i.e. biofuel) and support small-scale cane farmers, which would increase demand in the local market.  XAG drone flew at a fixed height above the sugarcane fields Amid industry reconstruction, smart agriculture technology such as drones could play a new role in the upstream part of the sugar value chain. Through generating higher recoverable value, reducing labour costs, and minimising the use of chemicals, drones could help to guarantee sustainable supply of sugarcane and improve the profitability of small-scale growers. When talking about his future plan, Kim Hein expressed positive attitudes towards the scale-up of smart agtech. “The number of tasks that can be done with drones have growing. We are now testing new applications to treat sugarcane crops at different stages in ways we could never imagine in the past.” In South Africa, sugarcane is harvested in an 18 to-24-month rotation, when agricultural drones can apply throughout the period from field mapping, fertilisation, controlling diseases, weeds, and pests, to ripening.
2020-07-04 14:52

Automated Farming: XAG Introduces Rice Seeding Drone to Mitigate Labour Shortage

25 May 2020, Guangzhou – With the farming population decreasing and growing older, the global food system now faces great uncertainty especially when the covid-19 pandemic exacerbates labour shortages. Its potential havoc can somehow be avoided by the integration of automation technologies. To overhaul the labour-intensive rice farming industry, XAG is scaling up drone applications in China that enable night-time seeding at peak periods.XAG Agricultural UAS spreading rice seeds Drones Sowing Seeds for Aging Farmers On 13 April 2020, XAG organised the world’s first-ever rice direct seeding demonstration on the comparison between manual broadcasting and drone seeding. The operation was conducted in China’s ‘Happy Farms’, one of the largest modern agricultural parks as well as smart agriculture demonstration site in Guangdong province. Two workers were invited to spread 5kg of rice seeds, walking slowly through the waterlogged paddy field with their feet swamped in the mud. This was a laborious and lengthy process, which took them 25 minutes to cover 1,200 square metres of land. Field workers spread seeds by handThen XAG’s drone followed a pre-programmed route and dispensed rice seeds from the air. With JetSeed granule spreading system, it finished the same amount of work in only two minutes. One XAG agricultural drone can seed 50,000 square metres of land per hour, which would otherwise take 50 to 60 field workers to complete. Happy Farms has just introduced XAG’s autonomous drones to replace manual labour for seeding, fertilisation, and crop spraying. Poured rice seeds into XAG JetSeed Granule SystemMany other farms in China, however, are still haunted by the problem of labour dependence, which has increased their vulnerability to the aging farming population. According to National Bureau of Statistics, 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. When the older generation of farmers retire and young people pour into the cities for better employment, the future of food supply seems unsecure if counting on manpower. Direct Seeded Rice Planted at Night  Direct seeded rice (DSR) refers to the process of sowing seeds directly into the fields without nursery cultivation and transplantation. As a more sustainable alternative to conventional transplanting, it avoids deteriorating soil health and intensive water use. However, DSR can only be conducted either by hand or use of large ground machinery in the past. Unlike the large-scale agriculture economies, most Asian countries with rice as their staple crop cannot resort to large automated machinery such as driverless tractors, because of the complex terrains, small size of many farms and high costs. This is where the nimble, agile drones can unleash their full potential to empower the rice farmers toiling on the land. For example, XAG’s agricultural drone can not only be utilised to spray crops to ward off pests and diseases, but it can also distribute rice seeds directly into the paddy fields without seedling transplant. Night operationJetSeed is an intelligent granule spreading system mounted on the bottom of XAG agricultural UAS, to endow the drone with new function of direct rice seeding. After simple parameter set-up on app, it generates high-speed airflow to project proper amount of seeds accurately into the targeted topsoil. Such mechanism is designed to maintain optimum spacing and uniform plant density. Compared with manual broadcasting and traditional sowing machine, drone seeding proves to achieve higher seedling rate and lodging resistance as important factors of a bumper harvest. Chinese farmers also start embracing night-time drone seeding to resolve severe labour shortfall during the busy planting season. Li Qisheng, a drone operator in Anhui, China, has turned on night operation mode this May to meet the increasing demands for autonomous direct seeding. “There are two major advantages of seeding at night by drones. First, aerial spreading is more precise and even after sunset when it is usually less windy than during daytime. Second, by extending the operational period, it helps farmers avoid missing the planting season.” XAG agricultural UAS is the only drone in the industry which can operate safely days and nights.  Stabilise Food Security under COVID-19 Pandemic  Uniform plant density by drone seedingXAG has made a great leap forward by taking drone seeding technology from experimental stage to commercial adoption across China’s main rice planting areas. Since April 2019, XAG’s drone direct seeding solutions have been applied to over 650 million square metres of rice fields in China’s 11 provinces. It is helping both smallholders and large farm owners to resolve common challenges such as operational inefficiency, aging crisis, and shortage of field workers. When COVID-19 loomed over the spring planting season, XAG has mobilised farmers to adopt seeding drones as prompt response to rural workforce shortages. Despite the economic disruption, China’s agriculture has witnessed a robust performance with 3.5% year-on-year increase in the added value of the planting industry, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. To feed 1.4 billion people with enough staple food, China this year plans to cultivate 4.6 million hectares of early rice, raising by 0.2 million hectares from last year. However, although the global food system remains well functioning at this moment, the lack of agricultural workforce might undermine future production and supply of food, warned by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Many countries are now struggling to mitigate their labour-deficit in seasonal migrant workers, for example, 80,000 farming jobs needs to be filled while that number in Germany reaches to 300,000. With such urgent labour challenges, the shift to automation, powered by smart agtech such as drone, becomes more imperative in the coronavirus age.
2020-05-27 03:29

XAG Deploys Drones to Seed Burned Land for Australian Fire Recovery

• XAG joined hands with DELWP and HDLN on the first-ever post-fire drone seeding operation on Cobrico Peat Swamps, Victoria in Australia.• Drones with intelligent spreading system were used to distribute seeds directly into the fire-ravaged, difficult-to-access areas. • The trial project in Lake Cobrico demonstrates the best practice of drones to regenerate peat swamps after a wildfire in a safe, cost-effective manner. AUSTRALIA, 12 May 2020 – In a collective effort to restore Australia from wildfire devastation, XAG has joined the first-ever post-fire drone seeding operation on Lake Cobrico, Victoria. This project was funded by Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and managed by Heytesbury District Landcare Network (HDLN). It is the first time that agricultural drones are used to re-establish native vegetation within a fire-ravaged peat swamp in Australia.                                     XAG drone dispersing seeds from air Due to the increasingly frequent, large-scale bushfire, Australia has been facing an unprecedented decline in biodiversity as well as substantial increase in greenhouse gas emission. Particularly, as one of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon reserve, peatlands have been experiencing drainage and fires, which contributes to 5% of global carbon emission. Immediate actions should be taken based on partnership to restore the country’s damaged ecosystem. This April, XAG sent 3 sets of its P Series drones, equipped with JetSeed granule spreading system, to distribute native seeds directly on Lake Cobrico. Within only two days, approximately 40 hectares of burned land was replenished with new plants, using a blend of 12 different seeds. In the next six months, XAG and HDLN will closely monitor the result of drone seeding, which will be compared with that of the other area where plants are going to be natural regrowth. It is expected that the project would be replicated across the region and state, especially within the areas where traditional techniques are inapplicable. Lake Cobrico is a swamp wildlife reserve located near Warrnambool in Southwest Victoria. Part of the peatland was severely damaged during the 2018 St Patrick’s Day Fire, with the vegetation and deeper soil layers left in ruins. In areas of high burn severity, the ecosystem itself might be unable to regenerate naturally and requires human intervention, such as direct seeding, for fire recovery. Re-establishment of native vegetation can slow down erosion and sedimentation, and suppress invasive weeds after a wildfire. Pouring seed mix into JetSeed XAG drones allow seeding to be done on Lake Cobrico, where landowners and managers used to find it difficult to restore the wet, inaccessible fire-impacted areas. During the operation, the drones accurately followed the pre-set flight route, while harnessing high-speed airflows to project seeds from 2-3 metres above the ground. Also, seeding rates could be precisely controlled and adjusted in real time to ensure that the proper amount of seed was distributed evenly into the targeted bare land. This has not only limited the exposure of staffs and ground vehicle to rugged terrain, but also avoided using either too much or too little seeds. HDLN co-ordinator Geoff Rollinson said in an interview with Cobden Timboon Coast Times that, drone technology provides access to all areas despite the complex landforms. “This project wouldn’t be able to go ahead in the normal manner because some areas of Lake Cobrico are unstable,” he said. XAG is the first business in Australia to obtain swarm flight approval from Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), therefore operation of up to five drones by one pilot is made possible to increase efficiency. By innovatively using drones for direct seeding, XAG has transformed the way ecosystem restoration works are conducted. Seeding by hand or ground equipment is inapplicable to Lake Cobrico where part of the peat swamp is difficult to access; this approach might also disturb the vulnerable post-fire vegetation and soil. Aerial seeding by plane or helicopter can cover a larger area, but besides costly, it might result in seed drift and uneven distribution that might adversely affect a successful outcome. Drone operator investigated the fire-affected land The trial project in Lake Cobrico demonstrates the best practice of drones to regenerate fire-impact peat swamps in a safe, cost-effective manner, without human or mechanical trampling on vegetation cover. XAG’s drone seeding solution is now recommended by DELWP and HDLN as a ‘well-designed and sustainable option for environmental restoration works.’ Bushfires are a natural part of Australia’s ecosystem, in which many plant species develop to become fire-resistant. However, the 2019-20 Australian bushfires, as one of the most severe, has brought devastating, long-lasting impact on the world’s biodiversity. Over 17 million hectares of land was burned across the nation, with an estimated one billion animals killed in the raging fires. Cobrico peat swamps Facing great environmental challenges caused by the fire disaster, Australia has been going through a bumpy pathway to long-term recovery. New technologies can empower government and land managers to restore the fire affected regions under safer operating conditions. XAG’s smart agriculture solutions, including drone surveying, remote sensing, and precision chemical application, have been gradually adopted in Australia. If drone seeding techniques can be scaled up for ecosystem restoration across the states, it would help to accelerate the footstep of Australia’s fire recovery.
2020-05-12 18:20