XAG Drones Examined, Add Candy Spot for South Africa’s Sugar Disaster – Drones Information


XAG P-series drone on the work of sugar cane ripening in South Africa

Drones with special spray technology have recently been used for a sugar cane ripening route in South Africa and have shown an obvious increase in the amount of sugar obtained from these sticks. This could mean a potential profit margin improvement for sugar cane growers who have suffered losses from the country’s battered sugar industry.

Mainly grown in tropical and subtropical regions, sugar cane is a high-quality, multi-year crop that serves both as a juicy fruit and as the main raw material for sugar production. South Africa is one of the 15 world’s leading sugar production countries that offer low-cost, high-quality sugar products. The South African sugar industry is struggling to remain competitive in the global market with $ 833 million due to a number of interrelated threats, particularly the influx of cheap imports and the introduction of sugar taxes. Meanwhile, drones that spray plants gently tap in and prepare to breathe new life into this industry.

Outperform drones for realizable value

A new round of sugar cane harvesting took place at Seafield Farm in the Midlands South region of KwaZulu-Natal in June this year. What was special about this harvest season was that for the first time a commercial ripening test was carried out to compare the effectiveness of the drone and helicopter. Ripening refers to the process of applying a chemical ripener to increase the sucrose content in sugar cane plants, usually six to nine weeks before harvest. The ripening application was widely adopted as routine management, which has been shown to effectively improve pipe quality and sugar yield.

In this experiment, different fields of the Seafield Farm were selected, each divided into two areas between 1 and 5 hectares, which are assigned to different ripening applications. The drone used was the XAG P20, which carried a customized spray attachment and a 12-liter smart liquid tank that was modular. It followed the preset flight route, operated at a fixed height 2 to 3 meters above the crop and sprayed exactly into the target fields. The results show that the traditional manned helicopter was significantly outperformed by the XAG drone in both sugar cane yield and the quality of the crops harvested.

Areas drone-ripened showed a small but significant 1% increase in achievable value (RV) compared to helicopter-ripened areas. In South Africa, RV is the accepted measure of the amount of sugar obtained from every ton of sugar cane crushed in the mill.

β€œThat means a lot to us. With higher sugar obtained from every ton of sugar cane, we get paid higher and my farms become more profitable, ”said Kim Hein, the licensed operator of the XAG drone and sugar cane producer, who tested the feasibility of a drone spraying solution for sugar cane growing.

According to the RV Cane Payment System, South African farmers have been paid for their harvested sugarcane based on the achievable value since 2000. With RV% generally between 9% and 14%, the more than 1% increase is a relatively satisfactory advance for sugarcane growers to achieve a higher return on investment. This smallest breakthrough could mean a lot to individual farmers facing a struggling sugar industry.

In the past two years, the market price for RVs has dropped significantly, which means that farmers are paid less for sugarcane with the same achievable value. This is largely due to the flood of cheap sugar imports and the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks (or a health-related levy) that reduces demand for local sugar.

Small farmers are the early adopters

Despite the market chaos of the sugar industry, South Africa granted the legal launch of agricultural drones last year, which could innovatively change the labor-intensive agricultural ecosystem. Kim Hein, the man behind the ripening test at Seafield Farm, bought agricultural drones from XAG to maintain the 200 ha sugar cane field and that of his farmers.

“Drones, pictures and an intelligent farming system can help us solve many environmental and work problems,” said Hein. Precision spray drones can meet the increasing pressure to use fewer chemicals while reducing labor to cope with rising labor costs that are out of proportion to the quality of the work done. As the benefits of drone technology become apparent, the acceptance of drone-based treatment among sugar cane growers who have faced difficulties in managing this special crop has increased.

Sugar cane plants can reach a height of 3 to 7 meters, ground implements such as tractors cannot be used. The manual option with backpack sprayer can directly expose field workers to chemicals. For example, manned air approaches such as helicopters and airplanes have been used for sugar cane ripening in the past 20 years.

According to Heim, spraying helicopters can treat large areas very quickly, but the downside was that most sugar cane fields are quite small. According to the South Africa Sugar Association (SASA), smallholders make up 90% of the country’s 22,949 registered sugar cane farmers, most of whom are located in two provinces, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. They form the backbone of the sugar industry’s value chain.

β€œWe usually have problems with the helicopter company offering a minimum of 50 hectares a day, but we only want 2 to 3 hectares a week. This does not allow flexibility in the ripening process, which means that the result may fail, ”said Hein. Large planes and helicopters can only be exposed to a ceiling spray, which means that they work in large areas at a time that does not go well with farmers’ harvesting schedule.

Instead, the drones used by Hein were developed by XAG to enable precise use in agriculture. They can easily be used in various areas, regardless of steep slopes or irregularly shaped plots, on which most South African sugar cane plants are grown. Thanks to the kinematic real-time positioning (RTK) and the special atomizing nozzles, XAG drones can spray more precisely and evenly on target areas without impairing the neighboring fields that are not yet ready for ripening. This helps to reduce the use of chemicals by 30% and agricultural water by 90%.

Get ready for the Sugar Master Plan

The introduction of precision drones in agriculture complements the government’s determination to rejuvenate the sugar industry. The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Competition announced the Sugar Master Plan in June this year, which marks an important milestone in efforts to ensure the health and longevity of the industry.

The sugar industry makes important contributions to South Africa’s economic activities and rural employment. Direct and indirect employment is estimated at 435,000 jobs and accounts for over 11% of the total agricultural workforce. However, based on SASA statistics, annual sugar production has declined by 25% over the past 20 years, while the number of sugar cane growers has declined by 60% and jobs in the sugar industry have declined by 45%.

The Sugar Masterplan aims to reverse this downward trend in the industry and protect tens of thousands of livelihoods in rural areas. As Rex Talmage, chairman of the SA Cane Growers’ Association, said, the very welcome plan includes measures to improve import protection, diversify the production of sugar by-products (i.e. biofuels), and support small sugar cane growers, which will drive demand on the local market would increase.

As the industry rebuilds, smart farming technologies like drones could play a new role in the upstream part of the sugar value chain. By generating a higher achievable value, reducing labor costs and minimizing the use of chemicals, drones could help ensure a sustainable supply of sugar cane and improve the profitability of small farmers.

When Kim Hein spoke about his future plan, he commented positively on the scale-up of Smart Agtech. β€œThe number of tasks that can be done with drones has increased. We are now testing new applications for the treatment of sugar cane plants at various stages in a way that we could never have imagined in the past. β€œIn South Africa, sugar cane is harvested in a rotation of 18 to 24 months if agricultural drones can be used throughout the entire period from field mapping, fertilization, disease control, weeds and pests to ripening.

About XAG

XAG was founded in 2007 and is a global leader in agricultural technology with 13 years of technical experience in unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS) and seven years of practical experience in innovative field applications. By April 30, 2020, XAG had over 51,000 agricultural drones in operation and 8 million farmers with precise crop protection services on 28 million hectares of arable land. With its global mission to advance agriculture, XAG is dedicated to building a digital farming infrastructure, developing precision farming equipment such as robots, drones, AI and IoT, and creating an intelligent farming ecosystem.

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