Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) play a crucial role in agricultural operations. Though a large share of farmers say they either use or would consider using drones in their operation (Geiver, 2018), less than 10% of crop production uses drone or satellite imagery in their operation (Aerial Imagery Remains Mostly Grounded on U.S.
Farms, 2023). There is still a significant opportunity for growth in the adoption of UAS in agriculture. One area where drones can make a significant impact is chemical application. However, choosing the right ecosystem for this task involves considering various factors, including human factors, performance, and capabilities.
Ease of use is a key factor in the adoption of any new technology. When considering ease of use, many people explore the user interface, additional training required, and ergonomics of a system. When considering different options for agricultural drones, the user should examine the entire ecosystem that supports that drone and the entire workflow around the spraying operations. The DJI Agras T-40 is designed with user-friendliness in mind, featuring an intuitive interface that requires minimal training, but it also has a well-supported ecosystem. An ecosystem refers to the entire network of components and resources that support the drone, including the imaging drones, RTK GPS base stations, mapping and mission planning software, and a network of dealers with available parts and experienced support staff. Traditional crop dusting, on the other hand, requires specialized skills and extensive training. The workflow involves flying from a local airport or landing strip with any products. Most of the other drone-spraying platforms on the market are less intuitive and do not have a well-developed ecosystem. Below is an example workflow showing the integration of different platforms (DJI T-40 and DJI Mavic 3E/3M) and software systems (DJI fly-safe, DJI terra or Pix4D and the aircraft remote).
Some of the tools that farmers and operators have at their disposal include the awesome simulation software available on the market. DJI makes a great simulator to practice flight skills. Universities also have software available for building virtual drones to test out the performance of different components. I recently used the Hub platform from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to test out various drone components for a simulated agricultural operation. The goal was to simulate a Yamaha Rmax to compare it to the DJI Agras T-40 I regularly use.
The Agras T-40 can carry more than 10 gallons of liquid payload. I t can cover a lot of ground in a single flight (up to 5 acres in a 10 minute flight for certain products). Traditional crop dusting aircraft can carry significantly more, but smaller farms don't often have enough acreage to justify the cost of this type of application. The Yamaha RMax carries less payload than the DJI T-40.
For drone applications, battery life is important because it limits flight time. The length of time a spraying route takes is roughly equivalent to the battery life of an Agras T-40. Typically, flying a route and emptying the 10-gallon spray tank take ten minutes. For spray tasks, the battery is typically not a limiting factor . The Yamaha system is powered by a gas engine. Although the endurance of this device is substantially longer, there is probably little to no efficiency improvement because the payload is less. The most crucial factor in effective drone operations is an efficient workflow. The propeller on a small, gas-powered helicopter may take longer to start and stop than a drone that runs on batteries. This would lead to a less effective workflow and more time spent on the ground in between flights (because the operator can't refill the tank while the propellers are spinning). Workflow efficiency is one aspect that is absent from simulations of various platform types.
GPS and Mapping
Advanced GPS and mapping capabilities in the Agras T-40 allow for precise flight planning and chemical application. Traditional methods lack this level of precision, often relying on the pilot's expertise. The Yamaha system also offers GPS capabilities but may not be as advanced as the Agras T-40. The ability to integrate directly with mapping drones for 3d flight planning is a key capability for the DJI system.
Choosing the right platform for agricultural chemical spraying involves considering human factors, performance, and capabilities. The DJI Agras T-40 stands out for its developed ecosystem, high performance, and advanced capabilities.. These are some of the reasons we choose to use it in our business. While traditional crop dusting methods and other UAS platforms can be great they do not replicate all of the features (especially the well-integrated workflow) of the Agras T-40.