Crop-dust­ing drones are ready for take­off in Napa

Yamaha is bring­ing its un­manned crop-dusters to U.S. vine­yards In­no­vat­ing, be­cause “no coun­try in the world will aban­don farm­ing”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - −Ma Jie and Yuki Hagi­wara

For gen­er­a­tions, Napa Val­ley grow­ers have used work­ers on foot or trac­tors to ap­ply nu­tri­ents and pes­ti­cides to the vines that pro­duce grapes used in some of Amer­ica’s most sto­ried wines. Now Ja­pan’s Yamaha Mo­tor thinks it has a bet­ter way: drones. Af­ter test­ing its he­li­copter-like RMax for the past two grow­ing sea­sons, Yamaha in De­cem­ber be­came the first com­pany to win fed­eral cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for a drone to be used as an agri­cul­tural air­craft in the U.S.

That was a coup for a com­pany look­ing to the skies for growth af­ter con­quer­ing land with mo­tor­cy­cles and the seas with boats. “The mar­ket [for drones] will ex­pand as the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try em­braces un­manned farm­ing,” says Osamu Ish­ioka, for­mer se­nior gen­eral man­ager of the com­pany’s un­manned he­li­copter busi­ness. “Even as the pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing and de­clin­ing, no coun­try in the world will aban­don farm­ing. This is why our un­manned he­li­copters will be in de­mand.”

Yamaha’s drones have been dust­ing crops in Ja­pan for more than two decades and han­dle more than a third of the na­tion’s rice pad­dies. That’s helped farm­ers cope with an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion that’s win­nowed the agri­cul­tural la­bor sup­ply. Yamaha’s drones also op­er­ate in South Korea and Aus­tralia and are used for re­search in France.

Al­though there are hun­dreds of ri­val agri­cul­tural drones, many are smaller, pow­ered by bat­ter­ies, and work mainly col­lect­ing data, mon­i­tor­ing dis­ease, and map­ping. The gaso­line-pow­ered, scooter-size RMax, which has two 2.1-gal­lon tanks, can fly for an hour when fully loaded with chem­i­cals. It is ra­dio con­trolled and has an on­board GPS sys­tem to keep its flight pre­cise. Aerial spray­ing can be done as much as five times faster than with trac­tors, says Brian Wynne, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tional.

Ken Giles, an agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis, who’s worked with Yamaha’s test­ing pro­gram in Napa, says the tech­nol­ogy has been re­li­able and that some grow­ers are en­thu­si­as­tic to try it— es­pe­cially for vine­yards that are hard to reach with trac­tors and backpack sprayers. Con­ven­tional crop-dusters are more suited for larger, flat­ter plots.

Drones also could be less risky. “There’s al­ways con­cern about the ex­po­sure to the chem­i­cal,” Giles says. “One of the things we like about the re­motely pi­loted air­craft is the op­er­a­tor is away from the ac­tual lo­ca­tion where the chem­i­cals are dis­charged,

while the trac­tor driver is right there when it’s com­ing out.”

Yamaha even­tu­ally plans to pro­vide drone ser­vice for about $250 per hectare (2.47 acres) for vine­yard spray­ing, about 40 per­cent cheaper than treat­ing the same-size plot us­ing hu­man la­bor, Ish­ioka says. The high value of wine grapes such as chardon­nay makes Napa an ideal start­ing point for the com­pany’s plan to cover 2,000 hectares in the U.S., he says.

First, Yamaha must con­vince vint­ners such as Matthew Crafton, a wine­maker at Chateau Mon­te­lena

Win­ery, that it can save them money. “The con­cept of drones is very in­ter­est­ing,” Crafton says, “but I haven’t seen any data to show that they are able to de­liver the prod­uct in an ef­fi­cient man­ner for what we need.”

Un­manned copters ac­count for only a tiny frac­tion of the com­pany’s 1.6 tril­lion yen ($14 bil­lion) in an­nual rev­enue, but Yamaha has big plans for them. It aims to dou­ble the sales and profit mar­gin of its drone busi­ness, to 10 bil­lion yen and 25 per­cent, re­spec­tively, by 2021, Ish­ioka says. Be­sides their use in agri­cul­ture, Yamaha drones have been used in Ja­pan’s Fukushima pre­fec­ture for ra­di­a­tion mon­i­tor­ing since the nu­clear disas­ter there in 2011, as well as for ge­o­mag­netic mea­sur­ing around the coun­try’s ac­tive vol­ca­noes.

Yamaha prob­a­bly won’t have the U.S. mar­ket to it­self for long. China’s DJI, the world’s largest maker of drones, in Novem­ber in­tro­duced its first agri­cul­tural spray drone. It can carry more than 10 kilo­grams (2.6 gal­lons) of liq­uid and will ini­tially be sold in China and South Korea, DJI says. Yet Ish­ioka is con­fi­dent Yamaha can main­tain its lead, even as ri­vals of­fer­ing bat­tery­pow­ered drones join the race. “There may be ma­jor break­throughs in the bat­tery tech­nolo­gies in the next 10 to 20 years,” he says, “but be­fore that they are not go­ing to match what we have.”

The bot­tom line Yamaha’s agri­cul­tural drones can spray a vine­yard as much as five times faster than work­ers us­ing trac­tors.

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