PHL farms to take flight in the future as government supports drone use

THE future of farming is in the skies; not in the stars, but in the use of what are known as “drones.”

On a clear day above some farms and fishing sites, farmers and agriculture sector players look up for a glimpse of what lies ahead for the development of the country’s agriculture sector: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. john deere drone sprayer

Dr. Sudhir Yadav, Senior Scientist, IRRI; Jun Correa, Senior Manager, Experiment Station, IRRI; and Arnel Rala, Senior Associate Scientist, IRRI.

Indeed, the Philippines is not alone at a phase in human history when technology is fast advancing and producing machinery that could change what was once a laborious and tedious farming process to an efficient and automated one.

In fact, the country has seen the entry of farm machinery that has changed various manual operations to automated ones: carabaos into tractors, manual harvesting to combined harvesters. Now, the Department of Agriculture (DA) is evaluating the potential of drones to change how farmers plant seeds, apply fertilizers and pesticides, and even monitoring their crops.

“Drones are the future of agriculture; digitization is the way forward,” Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol told the BusinessMirror.

FAO, DA venture

The DA initially tried using drones in 2015. Nearly four years ago, the DA collaborated with the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to use the aerial mapping capacity of drones in pre-disaster and post-disaster assessments.

The partnership was ideal since the Philippines is visited by at least 20 typhoons annually, leaving the farm sector vulnerable to massive profit losses.

The use of drones has improved the DA’s response time in assessing and validating typhoon damages. The technology has also allowed the DA to assess possible losses prior to the landing of a typhoon.

These activities, according to the DA, empowered the agency to make wiser—and immediate—policy decisions to mitigate the detrimental effects of disasters on farms and craft measures to help farmers cope with such threats.

“Validating-of-damage reports used to be in paper. It was a full paperwork. So, drones helped us validate the veracity of reports so that we could come up with a comprehensive solution,” Christopher Morales, chief of the DA Field Programs Operational Planning Division (FPOPD), told the BusinessMirror.

Today, the DA central office has a twin-engine fixed wing, a single-engine fixed wing and a quadcopter UAV unit. These UAVs have different capacities in assessing areas.

A single-engine fixed wing could cover 200 hectares within 60 minutes, while a twin-engine fixed wing could cover 800 hectares to 1,000 hectares in 90 minutes. A quadcopter could cover 50 hectares in 30 minutes.

Morales said two DA regional offices have a twin-engine fixed wing, while 10 regional offices have single-engine fixed wing. All regional offices of the department have a quadcopter.

Utilize technology

Morales said the DA is planning to have its own fleet of drones, following Piñol’s directive to fully utilize technology in agricultural production.

“He wants the agency’s rehabilitation efforts and assistance to be [as] quick as possible to help farmers recoup losses in times of disasters,” Morales said.

Part of expanding the DA’s drone fleet is the construction of a technology center or a hub that would house the agency’s UAVs and other related technologies, he added.

“In a way, it would be like an aerospace hub wherein whenever you need to assess a certain area or region you have a fleet or [several] units [you can] deploy immediately,” Morales further said.

In fact, the DA has proposed to the Department of Budget and Management the allocation of at least P100 million for its procurement of drones for all regions nationwide. However, the proposal was thumbed down, according to Morales.

He added he is also studying the possibility and benefits of manufacturing drones locally, particularly if it would be cheaper in terms of costs.

“The challenge of buying drones from suppliers abroad is the repair [and maintenance],” he said. “If there is a problem, say, in the battery, we still need to go back to the supplier for repair, which is quite expensive.”

Test runs

In April of 2018, Piñol indicated that the DA will explore the possibilities and opportunities that drone technology could provide to Filipino farmers.

The DA sees drones as a technology that would further mechanize the farm sector and cut farmers’ cost of production, according to Piñol.

Such statements are being validated by various agencies that are now incorporating the use of drones in their research. These agencies include the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

As early as 2014, the PhilRice has been undertaking research and experimentations on the use of drones in different rice farming processes.

For its part, Los Baños, Laguna-based IRRI has been at the forefront on the use of drones in rice farming. It started its research on the technology as early as 2012.

Using data

At present, PhilRice, an attached agency of the DA, has found ways to apply drones in crop management, application farm inputs, seed planting and even in fish feeding. All these are aimed at developing “precision farming” or “precision agriculture” in the country.

Precision agriculture is grounded on the use of historical data and other valuable metrics to make farmers’ crop management efficient and optimized. This type of farming is promoted as a means to adapt to the ill effects of climate change.

For one, drones, through available software, allow farmers to monitor rice farming: its growth rate, nutrient content and pest incidence, according to Roger F. Barroga, head of PhilRice FutureRice Farm program.

“So you can determine now if the plant has the right nutrients, if it has enough fertilizer or its growth is stunted. And this could be done over a wide scale,” Barroga said. “This is not just the farmers’ eye level that is being monitored. But we are talking about 100 hectares to 200 hectares using drones, which gives farmers a clear extent of their plants status, hence, rapid response to crop management.”

Furthermore, drones could provide farmers with real-time information on their crops’ status, such as height of the plants and the number of tillers, so that they could make immediate necessary adjustments to improve their produce.

“There would be faster decision-making and correction action on the part of farmers,” Barroga said. “If there is a lack in fertilizer then put more; if there is an incidence of pests, you could easily monitor the spread and make the right solution.”

Reducing costs, risks

Crop management is being complemented by PhilRice’s use of drones to apply fertilizers evenly across plants on a farm land, depending on the volume they need, Barroga said.

“The application of fertilizer would be calibrated [relative to] the health of the plants. If it is yellow then it would apply more; if it is green, which means healthy, then it would be less,” he explained. “This way, application of fertilizer is more precise and would mean lesser costs, lesser harm to environment and health.”

The PhilRice is currently testing the new drone sprayers available in the market in the application of pesticides or herbicides to farm lands. The tests began in January and are expected to end in March. These tests are being conducted by the government in partnership with Davao-based New Hope Corp. (NHC), the exclusive distributor in the Philippines of agricultural drones manufactured by Chinese technology firm SZ DJI Technology Co. Ltd. (DJI).

Initial results from the experiment showed that by using drones, farmers could cut extensively the volume of pesticides they use.

From the usual 160 liters of pesticide per hectare applied by farmers using traditional knapsack, the tests showed that using drones, they would only utilize 16 liters of pesticide, Barroga said. He added that it would only take about 16 minutes to 20 minutes for a pesticide-spraying drone to cover a hectare of land, compared to a day-long manual spraying duration.

Furthermore, Barroga said the force created by drones in spraying from above allows the pesticide to be applied even to the unreachable parts of the plants through manual application. This makes the crops more protected from pests and other diseases.

Equipped with AI

The drone sprayers are also equipped with artificial intelligence, or AI. If a drone stops mid-way in its flight path due to emptied payload of pesticide, then it would go back to its pilot for refill, NHC Founder Anthony Tan said.

After refilling, the drone sprayer would go back to the point where it stopped and resume applying pesticide. Hence, it avoids overlapping application of chemicals on crops, Tan added.

“This is something humans cannot do. There is a huge reduction in the margin of errors, in the risks of pesticide application,” he told the BusinessMirror. “Farm laborers tend to forget the last spot they sprayed once they run out of chemicals. Plus, they could easily get tired due to climatic conditions in the field.”

The use of agricultural drones could also allow farmers to spray pesticide during midnight or wee hours to prevent the attack of pests that usually appear during these hours, Barroga said.

One of the biggest benefits of drone technology to the farming sector would be the reduction in health and environmental risks of some practices, such as pesticide spraying, Tan said.

“Farming has so much hidden costs,” he added. “The price of human spraying is not just P300 per person but much more than that, and should be even more due to the risks and hazards they face.”

IRRI bought agricultural drones to keep their workers away from health hazards posed by manual spraying and to lessen environmental harm.

Today, their former workers, who used to wear knapsacks to spray pesticide in the field, are now pilots of agricultural drones.

Feeds, fish and seeds

Both PhilRice and IRRI said drones also provide a more even distribution of seeds across farm lands and use way lesser labor time.

Initial studies of PhilRice showed that through manual broadcasting, farmers spend around 2 bags to 3 bags of seeds, which is about 50 to 60 kilograms, Barroga said, noting that a drone uses only one bag of seeds or about 20 kilograms.

“The planting is even; there is no overlapping and the spacing between seeds is ideal,” he said. “Furthermore, because the seeds are being propelled, the seeds are planted deep enough not to be eaten by birds.”

PhilRice is now also conducting experiments on the use of drones as a fish feeder to solve over-distribution or uneven distribution of food in ponds, Barroga said.

He explained that, at present, fishermen who own a small pond just broadcast their feeds, resulting in the concentration of food in only one grid. He said this leads to competition among fishes in the area to get food, which is unhealthy and could lead to deaths of smaller fish.

The same is also observed in bigger ponds wherein fishermen use boats to traverse and broadcast feeds across the area, Barroga added.

“With the use of drones, the feeds are evenly distributed and, hence, fish would not have to compete to get food,” he said.

Additional procedures

The current market cost of a drone is not advisable for individual and independent farmers to purchase on their own, Tan said. At present a UAV costs between P800,000 to P1.2 million each.

Furthermore, purchasing your own drone would also entail training and securing a license from the government to operate one, Barroga explained. These additional procedures might not be viable for majority of the country’s aging farmers, who are averaging 57 years old.

However, Barroga proposes that the ideal purchase and use of drones would be through organized farmers’ groups or cooperatives.

In this way, the cost of purchasing a drone would be shared among farmer-members and the capacity of the technology could be maximized.

“We recommend the use and buy of drones through cooperatives, especially those with areas of about 100 to 200 hectares,” Barroga said. “This is also our recommendation even to non-cooperatives such as local government units.”

At an estimated price of P1.2 million, a cooperative that would purchase a drone could have a return of investment rate of around three years, he added. According to Barroga, farmers could also tap the drone-leasing or servicing market. 

Renting out

He said it would be more efficient if farmers, whose lands are adjacent to each other, would avail themselves of drone servicing altogether to maximize time and effort.

“That’s the way to go. They don’t have to be an organized group, they could just be independent small farmers in a huge area that can be serviced by drone,” he added.

Barroga said the cost of tapping a service drone and hiring farm workers to do manual spraying is just the same, but efficiency is “way, way different.”

“The cost of tapping drone service for pesticide spraying is about 850 per hectare while the cost of hiring a laborer would be P350 per person. But you would need at least two or three people to cover a hectare of land; that would be about P1,000,” he said.

IRRI Experiment Station Senior Manager Teodoro Q. Correa Jr. supported Barroga’s proposal and added that renting out a drone among members of a cooperative is the most viable way to maximize the technology’s capacity.

Nonetheless, just like smartphones, the price of drones in the market is expected to become cheaper in the future as market competition gets tighter, Correa said. In contrast, as the equipment becomes more affordable, it gets more advanced in terms of its features and capabilities, he added.

Mechanization tack

Such was the experience of a farmer in Nueva Ecija.

Barroga said a “tech-savvy” rice farmer named Ver Garcia recently tapped a drone service provider to apply herbicide on a 7-hectare farm, 3.8 hectares of which belongs to him while the remaining area is owned by his relatives.

He added that Garcia paid about P700 per hectare for the use of the drone.

“And that is the first time a farmer was serviced by drone in the country,” he said.

Barroga describes Garcia as a “risk-taker,” being one of the early adopters of the technology.

“They’re quite dazzled by it, like seeing a Ferrari on the field.” This was how Tan described what he witnessed during the drone servicing of Garcia’s farm in Nueva Ecija.

Tan’s company currently offers servicing works to farmers interested to use or incorporate drones in their farming.

Innovative approach

“There is not one innovation that is potentially more formative and impactful than drones whether you are looking at it [from] a mechanization perspective or another.”

So, believes Tan.

Tan, after working for 24 years in Bloomberg selling analytical products, ventured into agriculture when he discovered the farming in his hometown Davao is not yet fully mechanized.

In 2017, he attended a convention in Houston where he first encountered drone technology. It was also the same year he founded NHC and became the distributor of agricultural drones of DJI, which is considered a global market leader in the said technology.

“The gift of newer technology into agriculture is it really gets the next generation. The technology 56 years ago is not effective right now. It is evident as young people are not coming back,” Tan told the BusinessMirror.

Next generation

Aside from farmers, drone technology advocates also want the ubiquity of UAV use to attract the younger generation back to agriculture.

In their 5-hectare rice farm dubbed FutureRice in Nueva Ecija, Barroga said a lot of college students—most of them are into information technology and engineering degrees—are taking their on-the-job trainings.

The FutureRice, established in 2014, seeks to attract people, especially young ones, back to agriculture through sustainable farming using high-end technology, clean, green practical and smart farming practices.

“Technology is the magnet that pulls them back to agriculture,” Barroga said. “Because they discover agriculture is very complex and there are a lot of problems but there are solutions available through information technology.”

IRRI scientists echoed Barroga’s statements and added that opportunities in other industries and fields are more attractive to the youth than those offered by the agriculture sector.

“Nobody would like to have a knapsack on their back and walk in the mud for a day just to spray pesticides. It is really practical for the youth to move away from agriculture and get a white-collar job,” IRRI Senior Scientist Sudhir Yadav told the BusinessMirror. “Mechanization and drones definitely will attract youth in the agriculture.”

Governance woes

The FAO recommends that governments craft guidelines to improve the adoption of drones in agriculture. The lack of such, the FAO noted, could push away the young generation in going back to farming.

“UAS [unmanned aerial system] for agriculture could be a magnet for educated youth in developing countries to develop service enterprises based or at least operating in rural areas, thus generating jobs opportunities and improving agricultural production and farmers’ returns on investment,” the FAO said in its publication titled “e-Agriculture in Action: Drones in Agriculture” published in 2018.

“As the industry is fast developing in countries where the regulations are enabling, and on hold or winding down where these are too strict, expensive to comply with or disabling, regulators should be fully aware that the impact of their decisions reaches far beyond security and privacy and could determine whether agriculture becomes a data-driven and profitable enterprise or not,” it added.

The FAO noted that some countries have banned the importation and use of drones due to lack of proper study on their benefits and risks. There are also countries that prohibit the use of agricultural drones due to the lack of a regulatory framework.

In the Philippines, there is no clear-cut policy yet on the use of agricultural drones. The only existing policies refer to flight height limitations and some restrictions in flying drones in relation to security, such as prohibition of flight near airports.

“In shaping their governance, there is the need to find a balance between managing the ground and air risks of UAS operations, the need for safety and privacy and the benefits to agriculture and broader natural resource management,” FAO recommended. “Hence it is of paramount importance that CAAs [Civil Aviation Authority] closely interact with stakeholders in the agricultural sector in the process.”

Drone academy

In fact, IRRI launched a short course on the use of agricultural drones in December 2018 to attract young people and even other stakeholders involved in farming to venture and train people in using the technology.

The short course offerings by IRRI, which take about 5 days, train people in using drones in two agricultural aspects: crop protection and crop assessment.

The offerings target staff of agricultural institutions, people from the private sector, farm entrepreneurs, researchers and anyone interested in the technology.

Training in agricultural drones is not sanctioned by CAAP nor is it regulated by any governing body or institution, according to Lara. IRRI is the first institution to provide training on agricultural drones in the country.

“We are doing our best to educate our stakeholders on this technology,” Correa said.

“A lot of people outside the Philippines are flying to here to get their trainings as they are getting more interested on drones as it spreads across Asia,” Yadav added.

Most of the participants of IRRI’s first offering on agricultural drone training were people from big agricultural companies who are considering to incorporate the technology in their respective researches.

Prepping up

IRRI has launched a series of training on drones, believing it is important to make stakeholders, particularly farmers, not just aware but well-educated on the capacities and risks of the technology in farming.

This, the IRRI scientists noted, would help spur the adoption of drone technology in the local farms.

“We should not take drones for fun. We [also] do not want to see 1,000 units of drones flying outside. So, it is very, very important that the right agencies test the technology first before it is released to the farmers,” Yadav explained.

“If it’s released prematurely to farmers then there would be more risks than benefits,” he added. “We should make sure—step by step—that we develop the right process before it reaches to the farmers.”

Yadav said respective government agencies must also ensure its staff and workers are knowledgeable on the capacities of agricultural drones so that they transfer the right practice and technology to the farmers who would adopt the use of drones.

“Do not get blind with technology. [A] drone is one thing, but the need for a drone is another thing,” he said. “You need to understand what can be done and pick the appropriate technologies to your needs.”

At present, IRRI has at least two projects with the DA that involves the use of drones. The first one involves pest monitoring and reduction. The second project focuses more on water management in crops. Drones monitor the “swallowbility” of crops to determine necessary adjustments in the plants’ water needs.

Lifting hopes

Barroga said it is vital that farmers adopt modern technologies, including drones, to mitigate the ill effects of climate change to the agriculture sector.

“This is the future. We have to reduce our carbon footprint. And that could be solved by having a precise application of fertilizer and other farm inputs,” he said.

Tan, on the other hand, believes it would only be a short time before farmers become risk takers and confront the challenges in adopting new technologies such as drones.

“People should realize that unless farming and farmers themselves take an alternate view on what farming should be in the future, kids won’t go back to farming,” he said. “I think we should rearrange the furniture a little bit. What we are doing right now is unsustainable for people’s health and environment.”

 For Piñol, the impact of drones on agriculture would be revolutionary.

“Digitalization, drones, satellite monitoring and GPS-guided precision farming: these are the new words in the agricultural vocabulary,” he said.

Only time will tell if the promise of agricultural drones will hold water—or stay afloat in the skies like most good ideas do.