Agricultural drone makers eye overseas markets
An XAG agricultural drone sprays crops in Ecuador, where farmers are in great need of such efficient and precision equipment to improve efficiency. Photo provided to CHINA DAILY

Sales of unmanned devices on the rise despite pandemic

Entrepreneur Ma Zhiqiang is introducing innovative Chinese technologies, including agricultural drones, to Ecuador, a South American nation known for its crops such as bananas, cocoa and coffee.

Ma, who used to work as a technician for a Chinese medical equipment company, was sent to Ecuador for eight months in 1982 as part of his duties.

Attracted by the nation's beautiful and diverse landscape, after returning home to China, he quit his job and returned to Ecuador to start a business.

Born to a farming family, Ma has a strong feeling for the land, and started a farm to grow rice, cocoa and mangoes. Due to a shortage of smart agricultural equipment, most farmers in Ecuador still rely on manpower to seed, fertilize and spray pesticides on their land.

"I found that although the agricultural economy in Ecuador is developed, local farmers often face a heavy financial burden and low profit margins. They are in great need of efficient and precision equipment such as drones to improve working efficiency," Ma said.

"Chinese agricultural drones have taken the lead in high-precision navigation and spraying, so I wanted to introduce cutting-edge Chinese technologies and products to Ecuador," Ma added, noting that fully automated drones are ideal for use on banana plantations.

Compared with traditional manual spraying and fixed-wing aircraft, such drones have intricate technology to accurately control droplet size, flow rate and spray area. With a powerful downdraft, minute droplets are spread evenly on crop leaves, reducing chemical drift to safely minimize environmental contamination.

After careful analysis and comparison, Ma finally chose devices developed by XAG, China's largest agricultural drone manufacturer.

"My team and I initially bought several drones to demonstrate the spraying effect to local farmers. We even provided free plant protection services so they could familiarize themselves with the new technology. We also attended large agricultural exhibitions, trade fairs and academic forums to promote farm drones," Ma said.

His company Megadrone SA has collaborated with Dole, one of the world's largest producers and distributors of high-quality fresh fruit, and with German life sciences company Bayer. It also offers drone pilot training courses to create employment opportunities for young people in rural areas.

"Next, we plan to establish a long-term cooperation mechanism with local governments and educational institutions in Ecuador to promote drone technology and equipment through schools and other institutions," Ma said.

His company has business partners in Brazil and Chile. "Potential customers have also emerged in Colombia and Argentina," Ma said, adding that he hopes to provide quality services to more clients in South America.

Technicians in Australia load a drone with grass seeds for post-fire recovery work. Photo provided to CHINA DAILY

Widespread use

With the modernization of agriculture, demand for advanced farming devices has grown significantly. According to experts, agricultural drones are widely used for sowing seeds and spraying fertilizers and pesticides, increasing the efficiency and management of plant protection and grain production.

Justin Gong, co-founder of XAG, said: "A shortage of agricultural labor has become a long-term problem for many countries, who are making stronger demands for autonomous drones and robots. We hope to bring more unmanned farming devices to overseas markets through working with local partners and distributors."

Gong said farmers in Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and other South American countries with complex terrain attach more importance to the flexibility and precision of spraying, and farm drones are mainly used in banana, cocoa, coffee and sugar cane plantations.

"In the next few years, we expect agricultural drones to be used on a larger scale in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America," Gong added.

He said XAG, which is based in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, will step up efforts to expand its presence in Ukraine and Brazil-two major grain producing areas. The company is also looking for opportunities in Southeast Asia and in Japan and South Korea, which have solid foundations for agricultural machinery.

"We are confident of bringing mature products and solutions to overseas markets and of improving agricultural production efficiency worldwide," Gong said. He added that XAG's overseas sales have grown rapidly despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and will gradually become an important part of the company's overall revenue.

The degree to which agricultural drones are accepted in overseas markets depends on local laws and regulations as well as farmers' awareness of new technologies.

XAG is carrying out technology promotion, education and drone training to cultivate more young pilots.

As of December, the company's unmanned agricultural devices had been sold in 42 countries and regions. Apart from drones, XAG has introduced farm robots in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Australia, Ukraine, Russia and Brazil.

In June, the company's R150 unmanned ground vehicles made their debut in Japan, pollinating an apple orchard in the city of Takayama to help alleviate a labor shortage.

Civil drones comprise consumer-level and industry-level equipment. Industry experts said growth of the civil drone market is mainly coming from consumer-level devices used for aerial photography, but the industry-level sector will end up being worth much more.

Chinese entrepreneur Ma Zhiqiang explains the use of an agricultural drone to farmers in Ecuador. Photo provided to CHINA DAILY

Efforts accelerated

Yang Jincai, director of the Shenzhen Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry Association in Guangdong, said: "China is at the forefront of state-of-the-art farm-specific drones, which are the fastest-growing and most widely used industry-level drones."

Domestic drone manufacturers have stepped up efforts to venture overseas in view of the huge demand for advanced and intelligent agricultural equipment and technologies, Yang said, adding that he is bullish about the prospects for agricultural drones.

He said that in addition to agriculture, industry-level drones are likely to be used for mapping, public security, logistics, power line patrols, emergency rescue work and disaster relief, and such applications will witness huge growth.

"More efforts are needed to improve after-sales services in overseas markets and strengthen cooperation with global drone industry associations to cultivate professional pilots and create additional job opportunities for local people," Yang added.

Meanwhile, DJI, the world's largest commercial drone manufacturer by market share, has also invested heavily in developing agricultural drones, with the aim of helping farmers improve efficiency and increase the use of intelligent agricultural equipment.

The company, which is based in Shenzhen, has expanded its presence in international markets since 2016. Its agricultural drones have been deployed in more than 40 countries and regions, with shipments surpassing 20,000 units.

DJI has expanded relatively quickly in Japan and South Korea, accounting for 60 percent to 70 percent of the farm drone market in these two countries. Its agricultural products also perform well in Southeast Asia and Latin America, both of which have good growth potential.

Chen Tao, global marketing and sales director of DJI's agricultural equipment department, said, "With rising per capita income and a shrinking agricultural labor force, demand for modern agricultural machinery has grown significantly, especially in Southeast Asia."

Despite the pandemic overseas, sales of DJI's agricultural drones doubled last year, Chen said. He is optimistic about the prospects for such drones, as there is huge demand for the devices and the entire industry is "still in exploration mode".

"We will formulate a diversified expansion strategy catering to the needs of local users, especially in Southeast Asia. For instance, we will strengthen construction of localized sales channels and service capacities, to expand our business and enhance the level of local agricultural machinery," Chen said.

He added that overseas revenue from agricultural drones is expected to more than double that of the domestic market, calling for improved technology and more input sources to achieve the large-scale use of these devices.

Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs donated 12 T16 farm drones made by DJI to Pakistan to help the country combat locusts and protect food security.

Pakistani farmers struggled to combat the worst locust swarms in nearly three decades as the insects ruined harvests in the country's agricultural heartlands, sending food prices soaring.

A DJI T16 farm drone can spray insecticide over 10 hectares of land every hour, and the devices will increase Pakistan's ability to prevent locusts spreading to desert areas.

Lan Yubin, a professor from South China Agricultural University, said that in recent years agricultural drones have played a vital role in promoting smart agriculture worldwide.

He added that drone technologies have grown rapidly and fierce competition in the market is driving prices down.

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