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A farmer operates two drones in Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province. LAN ZITAO / FOR CHINA DAILY.

BY FAN FEIFEI

Aerial drones appeared one recent early morning above the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan province, Southwest China, in an area where the elderly form the backbone of local agricultural cultivation.

Li Zhenglin, a farmer in his 60s, gazed down from a hillside and watched the agricultural-use drones buzz through the air and spread seeds during the rice planting season. With the advent of drones he can finally bid farewell to the days of trekking up and down the steep slopes in the mountainous area.

Li once had to rely on manpower to seed, sprinkle fertilizers and spray pesticides, tasks that are exhausting, time consuming and inefficient. But now a group of tech-savvy young people have brought farm drones to help villagers like Li boost productivity and profits.

“It took up to one day to manually spray fertilizers on only 0.3 hectare (0.74 acre) of rice terrace. But now the same amount of work can be completed by one drone in five minutes,” he said.

With the modernization of agriculture, demand for advanced farming devices has grown significantly in China. The Qianzhan Industry Research Institute in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, said the value of the domestic agricultural drone market will exceed 12.8 billion yuan ($1.96 billion) in 2021, representing compound annual growth of 38%.

The government has adopted policies to promote the use of modern agricultural machines.

DJI, the Shenzhen-based company, has invested heavily to develop agricultural drones, with the goal of helping farmers improve efficiency and increase the use of intelligent agricultural equipment.

Chen Tao, global marketing and sales director of DJI’s agricultural equipment department, said the company’s agricultural drones have worked on about 33 million hectares last year, more than double the area covered the previous year. The company sold more than 40,000 drones for agricultural use last year.

DJI has also expanded its presence in international markets, especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America, which have shown great growth potential, Chen said.

Chen Shengdou, director of the China Agro-tech Extension Association, said farm drones are being used to safeguard a wide range of crops. Farmers have high expectations for modern agricultural equipment, which plays a critical role in prompting the transformation, upgrade and development of traditional agriculture, he said.

Agricultural drone maker XAG Co. Ltd. has stepped up efforts to develop drones and self-driving utility vehicles for use on farms in an attempt to introduce digital agricultural solutions and build smart farming ecosystems.

In November the company announced it had completed a 1.2 billion yuan round of financing led by Baidu Capital and SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

Peng Bin, chief executive and founder of XAG, said the company will enhance research and development, boost manufacturing and service capabilities, enrich sales channels and accelerate the construction of digital agricultural infrastructure with the proceeds from this round.

Agriculture faces great challenges, such as an aging rural population and a lack of farmhands, he said. Also, in China about 12 million people move from rural areas to cities every year, and they are increasingly unwilling to take over tedious, laborious farmwork from their parents.

“We develop agricultural drones, farming robots, the internet of things systems and smart agriculture farm management software to conduct fieldwork as tedious and laborious as seeding, spraying pesticides and crop inspections,” Gong said.

Younger farmers are now able to focus more on managing agricultural input and making decisions to optimize production workflows, he said.

The number of agricultural drones in China will grow to 1 million within the next five years, Gong said.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a smart agriculture ecosystem in which all the repetitive, tedious and dangerous jobs are handed over to drones and robots, allowing farmers to focus on the process of decision making with the aid of big data and artificial intelligence.”

China has 120 million hectares of arable land, and 300,000 agricultural drones are needed to meet the requirements of modern agricultural development, said Wang Zhiguo, director of the National Aviation Plant Protection Science Technology Innovation Alliance.