‘Take Off for Harvest Time’ is an annual drone spraying operation that takes place in Xinjiang, China. This is one of the largest drone operations we’ve heard of to date. For the third consecutive year, XAG, an agriculture technology company, has used drones to spray defoliant (a chemical used to remove a plant’s leaves for a faster and more efficient harvest) over 1.3 million hectares of cotton fields.
Drones Assist in the World’s Largest Cotton Defoliation Operation
Since late August, over 1,500 drone pilots and 1,000 crop protection teams with approximately 3,000 sets of XAG P Series Plant Protection drones have convened in Xinjiang to help local cotton growers spray defoliant and boost crop yields.
This is the world’s largest cotton defoliation operation that involves the use of fully autonomous drones to ensure a cost-effective, eco-friendly machine harvest. One million hectares of cotton fields have already been defoliated with XAG’s crop-spraying drones, and it’s estimated that this year’s operation will exceed 1.3 million hectares. The operation continues to grow, showing a 200% increase compared to 2018 when XAG served approximately 0.45 million hectares.
XAG is the first drone maker to introduce UAS precision spraying technology into the rural area of Xinjiang. The first ‘Take of for Harvest Time’ operation took place in 2017 as a response to a shortage of agricultural workers and farmers’ increasing demands for UAS cotton defoliation. With the widespread adoption of agriculture drones, the cotton industry has been taking a giant leap forward in sustainability and intelligence.
Drones Increase Efficiency and Lower Costs for Agricultural Growers
Traditionally, cotton was mostly handpicked, but this has no longer been a viable solution due to the rising labor cost and the shortage of agricultural labor. Cotton harvesting machines have been widely adopted to improve cost-efficiency while eliminating a great deal of tedious physical labor.
Prior to machine harvest, cotton defoliation used to rely heavily on manual or tractor spraying, both of which have a deficiency that either increases the costs of production or results in a certain level of yield loss. When people walk into the densely planted cotton fields for spraying, they might accidentally knock the cotton bolls onto the ground, easily get skin injury by thorns or expose themselves to chemical substances. People are reluctant to undertake such overwhelmingly labor-intensive work.
Spraying defoliant through large ground-based machinery is highly efficient especially when it comes to scale farming. Yet, it would cause crop damage and soil compaction when the tractor crosses over the cotton fields. In addition, the failure to achieve precision spraying on the appropriate timing might further enlarge the yield gap.
XAG had identified such a problem back in 2013 and self-developed a fully autonomous agriculture drone specifically designed for efficient, precise crop spraying operations. One XAG P Series Plant Protection UAS can reach the spraying efficiency of 10 hectares per hour, which usually takes 60 workers to complete.
XAG’s Autonomous Crop-Spraying Drone
Real-time Kinematic (RTK) navigation and Intelligent Rotary Atomisation Spraying system are two core technologies that enable XAG’s drone to precisely deliver pesticides and fertilizers. As a centimeter-level positioning technique, RTK is used to correct meter-level errors and enhance the accuracy of position data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). Drones equipped with RTK can conduct an operation on pre-set flight paths to prevent overlaps or misses while automatically avoiding surrounding obstacles within the croplands to ensure flight safety.
The atomisation spraying system is engineered to atomise liquids into micro-level droplets. The drone propellers can generate powerful downdraft to reduce drifting and ensure that the atomised defoliant evenly adheres to the plant surface. This has proved to conserve 90% agricultural water and save 30% defoliant, compared to the traditional approaches.
Since tapping into the smart agriculture sector in 2013, XAG has transformed crop protection approach on a wide variety of crops, ranging from cotton, rice, wheat, corn to fruit trees, with its precision agriculture devices operated under high-accuracy navigation network. Up to mid-September, XAG has offered UAS crop spraying services on 20 million hectares of farmlands, which helped conserve 4.29 million tons of agricultural water while reducing 18,600 tons of pesticides and fertilizers.
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