These aerial vehicles can be controlled from the ground, and have received a great deal of attention for their ability to do work that is dangerous or tedious for farmers
Text Wong Yi Wei
In Asia, rice crops and livestock have been culturally significant agricultural assets for millennia, and across the region traditional farming methods, unchanged for centuries, are still being used. But all this is set to change as these age-old systems are displaced by the use of drones. One report put the global value of the agricultural services and labour being replaced by drone-powered solutions at over USD32 billion in 2016.
As early as the 1980s, Japan integrated drones into rice farming in rural areas that had few farm workers due to the aging population. Today, tasks like spraying pesticides, which are detrimental to farmers’ health, can be handled by drones. At places like Ichikawa Farm in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, drones are already being used for organic crop dusting and recording factors such as crop growth.
Drones have also been considered as a solution that can help facilitate animal husbandry under challenging conditions. Farmers in mountainous regions could benefit from drones that can herd flocks and map difficult routes across the mountain. While this technology is still in its nascent stages, researchers from China’s Zhejiang University, for example, have developed an “Air Shepherd” that could be used to round up sheep.
In addition, tracking devices can be used to monitor animal health. An app developed by Mongolian Triones, a start-up established in 2015, adapts location-based services to monitor sheep health for farmers in Inner Mongolia. Each animal wears a portable device that relays positional information, monitors health, and tracks the weather, while drones screen live videos to the farmer’s smartphone.
Should drones “take off” in the region, they could permanently alter Asia’s agricultural heritage, particularly in nomadic regions. At the moment, Asia has the highest number of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems in the world – 30 systems across seven countries – according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. Already under pressure from rapid urbanisation and modernisation, many of these systems – which encapsulate the traditional farming innovations of the region and allow these traditions to be passed on across generations of farmers – are increasingly likely to be lost with the introduction of modern technologies such as drones.
Still, some farming practices are likely to resist the changes brought about by the use of technology. For example, it’s hard to see how drones could impact China’s 2,000-year-old tradition of raising fish in rice paddies, where the ecological symbiosis provides the rice with natural fertiliser and the fish with insect larvae and weeds, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The same goes for the famed technique of rice terracing, pioneered by Yunnan’s Hani minorities, which allows farmers to grow crops on challenging terrain and cleverly manage precious water resources.
Time will tell how precisely this latest technological revolution will affect the livelihoods of Asia’s traditional farmers. But one thing seems certain: Drones are here to stay, and the incessant buzz from these high-tech airborne vehicles is something we’ll all have to live with.
Related: Delivery Drones Are The New Postmen
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 129, 2018