The battle for Ukrainian chernozem (black-colored soil): drones vs. standard farming technologies. Robotics increasingly comes into play on agricultural lands, offsetting the impact of the human factors on the quality and the quantity of harvest. Ukraine is far ahead of the EU in terms of the digitalization of agriculture today and is a role model in terms of legislation and technology for many countries.
Drone.ua CEO Valery Yakovenko (high-tech partner of GTInvest) in an interview with Oleksiy Prokhorenko talked about how drones are conquering the agricultural sector, what awaits Ukraine in 5 years and how to put millions of hectares in a smartphone.
- Valery, tell us, what is spraying plants with drones?
The application of crop protection agents with drones is more accurate compared to traditional methods and makes it possible to carry out the processing of a field when the access of ground sprayers is not possible. Besides, spot treatment of the epicenters of plant diseases is possible. Today, drone spraying is an evolutionary shift in traditional spraying activities. Drones fly at an altitude of 1.5–5 meters used to perform plant protection. Previously, this job was done by trailed and self-propelled sprayers. The trend suggests that drones are entering this niche very efficiently, taking over the market of classical spraying technologies.
- What are the benefits of this technology compared to traditional methods? How do financials look?
Drones have some obvious advantages: they do not trample plants and damage crops, whereas conventional technologies damage 2% to 4%. Drones are extremely fast and flexible. They can adapt to the circumstances of the job and weather conditions. A drone team can move a thousand kilometers away within a day, which is impossible in classical spraying. Drones work whenever they need to, not only when the weather allows. They cannot get stuck in the soil. Nothing stops them. Precision treatment, promptness, efficiency in any location, and savings in fertilizer due to more precise or spot application are the main advantages of drones. The cost of such a project ranges from $10-$12 per hectare for the customer. The entire drone system that does the job costs $16,500. This equipment will do the job on 130 hectares in one shift. Conceptually a lot of things are changing in agribusiness now. Even large companies in most cases do not want to deal with in-house nano-management and machinery. So, the equipment is owned by service companies, while agricultural holdings rent it.
- How is the situation with drones in the agricultural sector in Ukraine and the EU?
The EU is currently over-regulated. There is an EU directive of 2009, which prohibits all aerial chemical activities. Drones fall under this ban. They are currently used there only for research purposes. Ukrainian legislation does not prohibit the use of drones. According to the new law on plant protection (can be found on the Ministry of Economy website). Drones are a tool allowed for use in our country. It creates great opportunities for the market and allows for a big step forward.
- Are there any barriers in the legal field in Ukraine?
- Currently, a legal framework is being put together. Initially, it is loyal to drone spraying technology. The Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Transport work collaboratively with us, understanding it is the technology for our future. The EU can take Ukraine as an example to review their legislation.
- What is the rub with the transition from established methods to drones?
There is a paradigm shift in water use. The classic farmer would dilute the active ingredients in 150–250 liters of water and water their plants with a sprayer. The agents flowed off, seeped into the soil, and oxidized it. It was done with large quantities of water, which had no practical benefits but was simply a way to transport active ingredients to the plant. It is different with drones. The active ingredients are applied in high concentration and densely deposited on plants. The drops do not fall on the ground, but cover plants and drugs are well absorbed. In this way, we use only 5 to 7 liters of water per hectare. The active ingredients are used more efficiently, and we do not use too much water. It is particularly crucial in climate change.
- Tell me how to order your services and how complex is the process?
After receiving the field coordinates from a client, we agree on a customer-specific treatment plan, considering the area, location, and weather conditions. Then our or our partner’s flight team visits the site and performs the treatment with drones. One flight team can process up to 20 hectares per day. The productivity of drones is constantly increasing, so it is not the limit, or up to 28 field spots. All reports are available to the customer on hard drives immediately after the flight. The data uploaded to the Cloud or Agribusiness Management System within 24 hours.
- How do you see the future of this service in Ukraine?
- In 5 years, the annual market volume will ramp up to $220 million. It is only a drone-sprayers market that is being created from the ground up now. We are at the very start yet, and the market is not even 1% occupied. Potentially there are about 85–87 million hectares in Ukraine for annual processing. Drones can process these fields and crops. We are at the beginning of the digital agriculture era. Automatic surveillance of plants by satellite monitoring and monitoring by drones, processing, and care of plants, soil mapping, deep analytics of agriculture — it is all a matter of equipment. In the future, I see that every region, district center, or even a small village will have its fleet of drones for agriculture. It will not only help improve the agricultural performance but also bring young people back to the countryside. Today our goal is to digitize agriculture, and every day we make significant steps towards it.
TASKS TO SOLVE WITH THE DRONES
Creating maps of crops
Maps can be created by flying over the territory, high precision, which determines the boundaries of fields. They often differ from the cadastral data. The entire relief, relief roughness, and the objects in the field will be visible: forest plantations, bushes, bogs, etc. Based on this data, it is easier to plan the sowing season, factoring in the terrain profile.
Full-season crop condition monitoring
With the help of special sensors when creating the map, you can see the field problem areas, which require a visit of a specialist. All other crops which are within the norm do not require additional supervision.
All the farmers need are a few batteries and a custom module for the drone to spread the seed capsule. This seeding type would save time and money for any farmer, especially when clients need green manuring.
Nitrogen application mapping
Nitrogen application maps are generated based on NDVI maps, plant biochemical analysis, crop rotation, planned and applied application rates, and planned yields. By examining these inputs, our specialists provide maps of the required nitrogen doses in different parts of a field.
Differentiated nitrogen application allows one to optimize plant nutrition, save money on fertilizer, reduce the chemical load on soil.
Both manual and automatic nitrogen application rates use the Differential Nitrogen application maps.
A combination of remote field scanning and ground control measurements enables accurate field measurement of dimensions, areas, and heights, considering distorting factors such as topography, power lines, roads, etc.
Field measurement data allow us to clarify cadastral data about fields and determine the exact costs for field treatment (seeding material, fertilizers, fuel, and lubricants, working time).
Research and analytics
The number of plants per unit area is one of the core factors of the harvest. Plant counts are used to assessing seed quality, seed germination, winter entry status, overwintering, and harvest prediction.
Plant counting is accomplished by aerial scanning from low altitudes and creating an ultra-high-resolution map (0.5–1 cm/pixel). Computer methods of classification and pattern recognition allow the detection and counting of every plant in the area.
Plant area and height
Determining plant size (area and height) makes it possible to control plant development, identify stresses, study the effect of growth regulators, determine winter entry status, and predict crop yields.
The measurement of the area and height of plants includes three factors:
- aerial scanning
- creating a map
- high-resolution 3D field model (1–3 cm/pixel).
Weed development maps
Creating maps of weed development allows us to determine the need for herbicides timely and optimally distribute them across the field.
Identification of weed plants is carried out by aerial scanning from low altitudes and creating an ultra-high-resolution map (0.5–1 cm/pixel). Computer methods of classification and pattern recognition make it possible to detect and count every weed in the area.
Soil chemistry is an essential factor in choosing a crop and calculating fertilizer doses. Maps of soil chemical properties allow the application of fertilizers in a differentiated way. It optimizes plant nutrition, increases crop yields, saves fertilizers, reduces the chemical load on soil.
The distinctive feature of the soil mapping method lies in the analysis of satellite data for the previous 3–5 years. It allows us to single out the zones of different levels of soil fertility in the field. A soil sampling scheme is created according to these zones. It enables one to reduce the number of samples and, at the same time, map fields more accurately.
Sampling and chemical analysis of soil samples can be carried out by our or partner lab, or by the customer.
Water deficit maps allow us to identify areas in a field in which plant development is reduced due to limited water availability, or conversely, excess (waterlogging zones). These places are hills, pods, old riverbeds, areas with a high percentage of sand in the soil. The isolation of these zones makes it possible to carry out additional tillage in the relevant places, eliminate problem areas from cultivation, and consequently save seeds, fertilizers, means of protection, and fuel.
Water deficit maps are created based on up-to-date satellite data using spectral channels sensitive to water variations.
Historical Field Analysis
The history of vegetation changes in fields is displayed on maps and charts. The analysis is based on satellite images, which are updated every 5–10 days. The analysis enables farmers to backtrace changes in boundaries and crop rotation on the field, compare plant development on the field in previous years and on different fields, examine plant’s reaction to weather changes, and identify the causes of yield reduction.