Zoom Up / 'eye In The Sky' Aids Rice Farmers

Zoom Up / 'Eye in the sky' aids rice farmers

By Ryohei Moriya / Yomiuri Shimbun PhotographerThe gentle sound of propellers can be heard as a drone flies over rice fields that are beginning to turn yellow. Its altitude, speed and route are all preprogrammed.

Ichikawa Farm in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, flies a small drone during cultivation of its pesticide-free rice about once a month. A special camera attached to the drone, which is flown 60 meters above the paddies, can capture near-infrared images and takes more than 1,000 pictures on each flight. The farm can check crop growing conditions based on computer analysis of the images.

The farm then uses a larger drone, with authorization of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, to spread additional fertilizer and wood vinegar for insect control over poorly growing areas. Until two years ago, the farm had relied on checks conducted in person for crop management, but it was plagued with unstable yields due to varying growing conditions around the fields and insect infestations.



The Yomiuri Shimbun

A screen displays computer-generated analysis of an image captured by a drone on July 20. The degree of photosynthesis can be determined by how green the fields appear in the image. Red indicates areas where photosynthesis isn’t occurring, such as roads.


The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ichikawa Farm President Noriyuki Ichikawa holds a bundle of rice stalks on his farm, alongside Drone Japan Co. President Kiichiro Katsumata. Rice stalks vary in height, proof that they were grown pesticide-free. Some of the produce will be provided to restaurants in Tokyo that use organic farm products.


The Yomiuri Shimbun

Some of the Hokkaido brand rice Yumepirika harvested last year has been sold with the label "drone rice." With an eye on sales abroad, rice is processed and packed in small portions.


The Yomiuri Shimbun

Enbetsu Agricultural High School students in Enbetsu, Hokkaido, use a drone to take aerial pictures of fields before discussing when to harvest crops.


The small drone is managed by Tokyo-based Drone Japan Co., which promotes use of the new technology in agriculture. Drone Japan and the farm have embarked on a joint research program with the help of the Asahikawa city government.

"[The use of drones] is efficient and the yield has increased. We still need to accumulate yearly data," said the farm’s president, Noriyuki Ichiwawa, 43. The farm cultivates 53 hectares of rice fields. About 10 hectares are reserved for the cultivation of pesticide-free rice and Ichikawa is considering increasing the area.

Given the current circumstances, such as a labor shortage in farming due to the aging society and a need to strengthen competitiveness, the future use of drones is expected to expand.

Hokkaido Enbetsu Agricultural High School in the town of Enbetsu started an after-school course to learn the mechanism and operation of drones in the autumn of 2015. The course was incorporated into regular classes for practical agricultural training this spring.

Teacher Hisashi Maeda, 34, said: "Drones are helpful for new farmers and will likely incorporate artificial intelligence in the future. I hope students will play a key role in agriculture in the next generation through their [drone] studies."Speech