Almost exhausted and sweating all over, Bai Anwei, a crop-protection service provider in Yunnan, China, had been travelling around different cornfields with drones to spray pesticides for maize crops. He had already kept working by fields throughout the day, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next morning. “We don’t have much time. This is the only way to stop the pests from marching and wreaking havoc over more farmlands,” he said with a hint of bitter smile.

6,005 miles from China, Fraser Zhang was leading his crop protection team for another drone spraying experiment against the same kind of pests at dusk in Zambia. He has witnessed how Zambia has been suffering from the plague of pest disease nationwide.

fall armyworm

Fall armyworm feeding on maize

The rampaging pest that perplexed Bai and Zhang is called fall armyworm, a highly destructive crop invader originated from the Americas and spreading rapidly across Africa and Asia in recent years. This pest has been terrifying farmers and causing extensive yield loss around the globe, just like a virus.  

Without well-validated natural enemy or genetically modified maize, local farmers in Africa and Asia mostly resort to traditional insecticide spraying but, in some cases, find the effect disappointing. Having developed new technology to replace the old fashioned, XAG starts actively engaging in the fight against fall armyworm in some of most affected areas, such as Zambia and China.

Check out our integrated news report on XAG’s collaborative effort against fall armyworm: 

“Debug the Fall Armyworm” – XAG Combats Alien Pests with Crop Spraying Drones

From Ground to Air: Fall Armyworm Fight Goes Intelligent in Zambia

Fraser Zhang, founder of Sunagri Investment Zambia Limited, is one of the early adopters who introduced drones into the battle against fall armyworm. As an agriculture technology service provider, he has been utilising XAG’s plant protection drones for aerial spraying in Zambia since 2018.

Fraser Zhang and his team member

 Fraser Zhang and his team member

Zambia is one of the regions where fall armyworm struck first in Africa in early 2016. The country has been facing a formidable fight, since the pests prefer to feast on maize which is the staple crop for Zambians. According to a national household survey, up to 99% of farmers reported that their cornfields had been infested by fall armyworm, with the average yield loss reaching 35%, equivalent to an economic value of nearly USD 160 million.

Corn is considered a type of crop easier to grow and manage without any additional chemical treatment. However, the outbreak of fall armyworm changes everything. Farmers have to spray pesticides to kill the pests, otherwise they would be left penniless with a devastated cropland,” Fraser Zhang explained the situation.

In Zambia, use of pesticides involving hand sprayers has remained the most widely deployed method to contain fall armyworm. But obviously, this is not a safe, effective measure to ward off pests with strong migration and reproductive ability. “It is unpractical to conduct manual spraying over farmlands larger than 5 hectares, let alone a massive waste of pesticides and the risk of chemical poisoning,” Zhang added.

In addition, farmers usually get more frustrated when they have sprayed pesticides multiple times but without any effect. Inappropriate use of pesticides might be the reason, as well as fall armyworm’s unique natural habits that make it impossible to eliminate the pests by hand sprayers.

Contact XAG for spraying solution.

XAG P Series Plant Protection UAS

XAG P Series Plant Protection UAS to replace manual spraying in Zambia

Fraser Zhang describes the pest as a ‘crop-killing monster’, since it not only eats maize but also attack 80 additional crop species, including wheat, sugarcane, sorghum and ginger. “At daytime, the fall armyworm caterpillars usually hide inside the central part of corn and sometimes burrow into the soil. When they grow older, they would generate large quantities of frass to block the whorls, making it difficult for chemicals to contact the pests.”

When facing such tough situation, Zhang realised that the combat against fall armyworm needs to go aerial. So, he reached out to XAG for its precision UAS spraying solution. During last years’ growing season, his team has conducted a series of field experiments and practical operations on three commercial farms, covering approximately 200 hectares of croplands.

Spraying experiment

 Spraying experiemnt on fall armyworm control

At Kalele Farm, located in Kabwe, Zambia, fall armyworms were successfully defeated on 30 hectares of heavily infested cornfield. “The farm manager thought his maize crops couldn’t stand a chance against the pests and decided to place a bet on new tech. We utilised the spraying drones to apply chemical treatment twice, and the result was quite satisfying as a yield loss was avoided,” Zhang said.

Swarm operation for higher efficiency

 Swarm operation for higher efficiency

Now with a year of accumulated experience on UAS crop protection, Zhang and his company Sunagri have started to introduce XAG’s drone-based spraying service to more local companies and commercial farms, including Zambia Sugar, Kasama Sugar, York Farm, Butter Mere Farm and Seedco.

This is how Zhang elaborated the solution mechanism. 

First, drones should be deployed for operation after sunset, when the nocturnal pests stop concealing themselves. Second, with the intelligent atomisation spraying system, the drone can target pesticides uniformly onto the leaves, whorls and stems of the corn. Of course, low-toxicity systemic insecticide would be more effective to increase pest mortality and protect the plants.”

Night operation

 Night operation

As for the future plan, Fraser Zhang intends to expand his agribusiness and supply smart agriculture equipment to other nearby African countries, such as Uganda, Malawi and Rwanda, which are also subject to the torture of fall armyworm.

Agritech Expo Zambia

 XAG and Sunagri at Agritech Expo Zambia

An Integrated, Tech-backed Campaign in China

In China, the fight against the ‘fearlessly’ marching fall armyworm is also intractable. Since the confirmation of its presence in January 2019, the pest has reached 21 provinces and is yet to invade the northeast corn-production area. With experience of prevention and treatment on other armyworm species, the agricultural ministry stays highly alert to this new invader.

Maize damage by fall armyworm

 Maize damage by fall armyworm

The Yunnan Province, located in Southwest China, was the first to be attacked by fall armyworm migrating from neighbouring Myanmar. It is also the most severely afflicted region, with 86,000 hectares of croplands being infested by mid-June.

In Wenshan, an autonomous prefecture of Southeast Yunnan, XAG’s local distributor Bai Anwei has assembled a professional crop protection team offering cost-effective UAS spraying service to smallholders. 

I have never seen such an aggressive pest before. Instead of a picky eater, it can encroach all parts of the maize plant including leaf, whorl, stem and cob. Especially, if the pests attack the young crop at its early whorl stage, the maize might reach a condition called ‘dead heart’ in which the plants stop growing anymore,” Bai said.

Fall armyworm was first spotted in Wenshan at the end of March, when local farmers had no idea what it was or mistook it as other similar pests. Villagers’ slow response to the ambush of fall armyworm and their initial inability to identify this species have resulted in an extensive infestation among corn and sugarcane fields. Crop failures put many farmers’ livelihood at risk and forced them to switch to grow other crops immune to this pest disease.

XAG's drone spraying maize on mountainous area

XAG’s drone spraying for maize on mountainous area

Under such circumstance, chemical control was justified to curb the spread of fall armyworm. However, the manual spraying approach widely used by Chinese farmers is neither effective nor sustainable.

When you spend the whole day hand spraying one infested area, you would end up finding out that the pests have already invaded other parts of the land that was originally intact. Besides, crops here are mostly grown in mountains, where large ground-based machines are not flexible enough to operate,” Bai explained the reason.

This agricultural combat requires a prompt, effective large-scale operation backed by drones, which are nimble enough to reach tall plants on mountainous area. In June, under the guidance of local authority, Bai Anwei and his team participated a three-week intensive operation with seven P Series plant protection UASs from XAG to spray for the crops infested by fall armyworm.

Government initiated UAS operation

Government-initiated UAS operation in Wenshan

These were tough days, though. During the operation, Bai and other drone operators often worked from morning till night to offer treatment on as many as farmlands, despite that pesticide spraying is most effective at night when the pests venture out for feeding. Bai is clearly aware of the best operation time, but he had no choice but to work day and night because of the large-scale invasion.

According to statistics published by the local government, fall armyworm was detected in 15,000 hectares of cornfields in Wenshan by the end of July. The affected area is too large whereas sufficient smart devices and crop protection professional are both lacking. With only 7 drones available for the operation, Bai Anwei is one of the few UAS crop protection providers in this less developed region.

Fully autonomous operation to prevent farmers from chemical poisoning

Fully autonomous operation to prevent farmers from chemical poisoning

Smallholders’ reluctance to accept new technologies for agricultural production is one of the main reasons why drone remains uncommon in Wenshan. Nevertheless, the aerial battle against fall armyworm has changed the attitude of many local farmers who were sceptical towards agriculture drones at the very first beginning. On nearly 270 hectares of croplands that Bai’s drones had winged over, the pest damage was managed to its minimum.

“XAG’s drone enables a unique spraying application that makes insecticides more evenly adhere to a broader crop surface. Having witnessed its high efficiency and cost-effectiveness, farmers rushed to sign up for our service, hoping to save their broken lands,” Bai said.

25 January 2020, Guangzhou – The UN warned last week that East Africa remains under the threat of desert locust invasions, due to the prevailing favourable breeding conditions which enable new swarms to form and increase. As African countries are getting prepared for the imminent locust crisis, XAG has proposed that agricultural drones, through more targeted night spraying application, can strongly support the current ground and aerial control measures. Drones specifically developed by XAG for agriculture can be used to combat the ravenous pests that have wreaked havoc on food crops and placed millions of people into hunger.

Drones to Ease the Burden

The unusually rapid spreading of locusts in Africa is largely the result of erratic weather associated with climate change. Prolonged rains lead to moist, humid desert lands and flourishing vegetation, which creates a conducive environment for locust swarms to breed freely.

According to the FAO Desert Locust situation update on 22 January, the Greater Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, is the most-affected region witnessing the arrival of more immature swarms. The estimated above-the-average rainfalls brought by Cyclone Gati cause the swarms to complete maturation and lay eggs. This will give rise to multiple generations to be born during February and March, again putting food security and the livelihoods of rural households in danger since the last upsurge turned calm in July 2020.

Finding versatile, easy-to-use new tools to tackle these notorious locusts becomes more urgent when local farmers and response teams have been struggling to contain them. In times of this crisis, drones provide an innovative complementary solution to the more expensive manned aircraft or the less effective manual spraying method. They can be used to conduct ultra-low-volume (ULV) precision spraying of chemical or biological pesticides to kill the locusts, especially in the impacted areas otherwise inaccessible for ground vehicles and aeroplanes.

When the locust swarms are unscrupulously flying and densely-packed during day, it is suggested unsafe and ineffective for drones to carry out spraying operations. However, XAG’s agricultural drones with night-operation mode are able to join the locust “air force” under certain circumstances. They can either target the wingless nymphs and hopper bands at the early stage, or launch an attack when the flying adults settle down after sunset.

The use of unmanned devices is also expected to help lessen the strain on supplies and human resources that are needed to suppress the locust outbreaks in the poverty-stricken regions of Africa. Fitted with four rotary atomisers, XAG’s agricultural drones can operate fully autonomous on a predetermined path and deliver uniform sprays three metres above the targeted locust swarms. This means that less sophisticated skills of the field operators are required, while reducing the quantities of pesticides used to minimum level. Such unmanned technology therefore shows strengths to fight a locust invasion amid travelling restrictions and social distancing imposed due to COVID-19.

The Night Guard to Protect Livelihoods

In a recent demonstration of drone spraying, Sunagri Investment Zambia Limited, as XAG’s global partner in Africa, has put forward the new ideas of night-time locust control to the Ministry of Agriculture and Zambia Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU). It is now on track to get its XAG gear ready for possible locust outbreak during the upcoming dry season. Sunagri offers precision crop-spraying service with XAG’s agricultural drones in Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania, helping farmers sustainably treat pest diseases and reap the benefits of improved yields. In 2019, XAG has worked with Sunagri to provide drone interventions that yielded success to manage the crop-devouring fall armyworm.

Fraser Zhang, the owner of Sunagri Zambia, explained the solution on how to apply drones more effectively to support the locust control operations. The first step is to survey and map the fields before sunset in which locust swarms are identified. Then drones can be deployed at night to concentrate their spraying forces against swarms which become inactive and rest on trees or on the ground after sunset.

“During daytime, the locust swarms spread out over an extremely large area and stay mobile in the air for long periods. Their dynamic movement makes them much more difficult to be contained. But at night, what we would aim for are static objects which can be accurately sprayed,” said Zhang.

The Desert locusts are one of the species of short-horned grasshoppers, which have been considered the world’s most destructive migratory pest. They usually form into a swarm whose density can reach up to a whopping 80 million per square kilometre, eating massive amounts of crops and vegetations and leaving people inflicted with food losses. The locusts can reproduce exponentially, and if left unchecked, a group of its population would multiply 20-fold in only three months and grow 400 times in half a year.

According the United Nation, since January 2020, the hungry desert locusts have swept across dozens of countries in Africa and Southwest Asia, some of which reported the worst locust upsurge in decades. The Greater Horn of Africa and Yemen are the epicentre of crisis, with over 48 million people facing acute food insecurity.

Zambia also experienced a similar infestation on 300,000 hectares of land in 2020, but by a different species called African Migratory Locusts (AML). “The Western Province of Zambia is worst-hit by the locusts. It is anticipated that the mature swarms have already laid eggs at this point, which will hatch and lead to a new wave of invasions in coming months,” said Fraser Zhang.

With more extreme weather events making frequent occurrences, the locust crisis is not likely to fade away very soon. We should be racing to test new tools and technologies such as agricultural drones which would help better respond to any outbreaks now and in the future.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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