Crop-dusting drones — making work safer and easier for farmers | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.02.2020
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Crop-dusting drones — making work safer and easier for farmers

A Cambodian man, concerned about how many hazardous pesticides farmers use on their crops in his country, has created something to help: a crop-dusting drone.

Heng Sopheak is not a farmer himself. The 38-year-old used to work as an IT expert in a textiles factory in Phnom Penh.

But now, he's found a new lease on life — one that gives him more of a sense of purpose. In the past, Sopheak often came into contact with farmers working in their fields. "I know how hard it is to farm," Sopheak told DW. "It's already difficult to plant, but to take care of the crops is even harder."

When he realized they had difficulties spraying pesticides on large fields, he had an idea: Why not build an unmanned agricultural crop-dusting drone that would help prevent the exposure of farmers to the chemicals and also make the work much easier for them? 

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Inventor Heng Sopheak prepares his drone next to a field in Cambodia. (Heng Sopheak)

Heng Sopheak preparing his drone for flight

Reducing direct exposure to chemicals

"I've seen some people hesitate to take up the job of spraying pesticides because they feared they might be poisoned," Sopheak told DW. "With the Sprayer Drone, farming is made easier, faster and more efficient. It won't damage the crop and harm the health of the farmers," he said. Sopheak is promoting his invention on Facebook.

The drone can apply the liquid more economically than traditional methods do. "By using the drone, we can save 20% of the pesticide. It uses only 16 liters (4.2 gallons) for one hectare. And it only needs seven minutes to spray a hectare."

Sopheak says that this is because the drone works with much more precision than a human. The robot is simply less prone to mistakes.

"Sometimes, humans can be careless in doing their work. Drones cannot make the same errors. They work according to the map we draw and the height we set. When the drone runs out of liquid, it will automatically mark the last point and fly back. After the refill, it will start again exactly at the last stop," Sopheak said.

And his drone is able not only to apply pesticides but also fertilizers. Here, again, the drone uses less overall, which saves the farmers money and also helps protect the environment.

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A drone mounted on a motorcycle. (Heng Sopheak)

Sopheak mostly travels by car, but if the roads are uneven and narrow he uses this motorcycle

Building the cropduster drone

Sopheak has not started producing his drone commercially. But when he has all the necessary mechanical parts, it will take him a week to build one, he told DW. Most of the parts that he needs are not available locally. 

However, there is a lot more involved in building the drone than just putting the pieces together. The software needs to be installed and maps of the fields have to be made and programmed in. "The technical process of making the drone is complicated both in terms of hardware and software," he said. A drone can cost somewhere between €5,000 and €20,000 ($5558 to $22,234).

Hire a drone

Most farmers don't need to have their own drone, though. Instead, people are able to contact him to obtain his drone-spraying services.

That's why Sopheak and his team travel around Cambodia's provinces to work for farmers. They charge between 40,000 to 100,000 riel (€9 to €22 or $10 to $19) per hectare depending on the type of crops and the geography.

"Even if it can be used on almost all types of fields, the steeper the land, the riskier it is," he said.

The drones are equipped with a First-Person View (FPV) camera, which allows the pilot on the ground to control the drone from the flying perspective. And it has a terrain-following radar, meaning it can handle mountainous areas. But drones "are not always the most effective way to spray plants growing high on the hillside," he admits. 

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Heng Sopheak and a colleague with an agricultural drone. (Heng Sopheak)

Sopheak and his colleagues help farmers all over Cambodia.

A large variety of crops 

Sopheak and his team travel to many provinces in Cambodia. They put their drone into action in pepper and mango plantations, over rice paddies and with many other different kinds of crops.

Most of the time, Sopheak interacts with his customers via video streaming on Facebook Live. He answers questions and explains the significance of drone farming, as well as showing video clips of how the drones spray crops in the field.

Sopheak thinks that agriculture will become easier only when more new technologies come into play, such as artificial intelligence. Many farmers in Cambodia certainly seem to be in favor of the idea that high-tech makes agriculture less labor-intensive.

"Farmers are getting more interested and more curious about technologies related to agricultural farming. They hope to produce bigger harvests and to compete with products from neighboring countries. Drones are like a revolution in agriculture because they will help provide tremendous benefits to farmers," Sopheak said. 

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