On September 21, 2023, the DroneUA Group of Companies, together with the International Information and Analytical Platform East-Fruit.com, conducted an International Online Seminar "Drones, Robotics and Unmanned Solutions in Fruit and Vegetable Farming and Horticulture".
The event was held in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with the support of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the technical participation of agro-media agency Sapienza.media.
During the online seminar, the key achievements of Ukrainian agro-producers in applying drones and robotics in orchards and plantations were outlined, as well as the prospects for implementing unmanned solutions in the fruit and vegetable sector.
The use of drones in fruit and vegetable farming and horticulture began with visual monitoring and control of the state of plantations. The vegetable association expert Marite Gailite from Latvijas dārznieks noted the unique ability of drones to promptly collect data on the state of plantations. Data collection, processing, and analysis became the basis for analyzing the situation throughout the growing season and further operational decision-making related to quality control and the effectiveness of other technological operations.
The use of drones for monitoring and subsequent data processing allows for quality planning of technological operations, as well as predicting yield and adjusting the factors that affect it. Moreover, this tool has its key advantage over other methods (satellite, aviation) due to its promptness and accessibility. Data processing allows analyzing not just the general data array, but solving local problems at the level of a separate bush or tree.
GIS specialist and photogrammetrist of the DroneUA Group of Companies, Gleb Lisoviy, unveiling the methodology of conducting multispectral analysis with drones, notes that it allows gardeners to determine the intensity of flowering of fruit trees, prevent overloading of trees, identify overgrown trees, and conduct pruning of fruit tree roots.
Multispectral cameras are simple and convenient to use, they can be operated through a drone and process up to 2,000 hectares per day. The data obtained through multispectral analysis is processed in a special program (Pix4D Fields, Pix4D Mapper, ArcGIS Drone2Map, Drone Deploy, etc.).
- visual inspection of gardens or fields based on orthophoto maps;
- plant accounting and assessment of their condition;
- field measurements and farm certification;
- creation of plant development status maps based on the vegetative indices NDVI, NDRE;
- creation of maps for differential application of preparations.
The methodology of multispectral analysis involves assessing the condition of plants based on NDVI and NDRE indices:
- NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) - the most universal and historically first vegetation index for assessing the condition of plants. It characterizes the concentration of chlorophyll and biomass;
- NDRE (Normalized Difference Red Edge Index) - similar to NDVI, but instead of the red band, it uses the so-called "red edge" band – transitional between red and NIR.
In this way, unmanned solutions allow identifying a specific problematic tree and its coordinates and conducting the necessary operation at the local level.
At the same time, over the last few years, there have been cardinal changes in the use of drones in agriculture, primarily related to the application of PPPs and fertilizers. In the cultivation of cereals and oilseeds, this can be compared to a real revolution.
Agro-drones today boldly compete with traditional wheeled equipment for work productivity, and at the same time offer many advantages related to resource savings and increased accuracy of application. This trend was confirmed by domestic agro-producers of the horticulture and fruit and vegetable sector during the online seminar.
Syngenta company shared their own experience of using ground robots in gardens and on vegetable plantations.
In particular, Syngenta's technical expert, Serhiy Radchuk, noted the features of using the ground robotic platform XAG R150 2020 Spray Model for plant spraying in gardens and plantations.
According to the expert's recommendations, for working with vegetable crops, it is advisable to plan planting with a technological track, considering the vegetation of the crop for effective robot operation throughout the vegetation period.
To increase the productivity of the ground robot XAG R150 2020, an intensive planting technology of the garden with the formation of low trees and small inter-row spacing is optimal.
According to Syngenta's experience, water saving during ground robot operation is 60% compared to a traditional sprayer. The ground agro-drone requires 200-250 liters per hectare, while a regular sprayer needs 700 liters per hectare. Fuel consumption with traditional application technology was up to 3 liters per hectare, with the drone - up to 1.3 liters per hectare. Along with resource savings, the quality of application significantly improves.
The robotic platform allows quick and quality settings for covering those zones (garden/vegetable field) that require treatment with droplet size adjustment according to the product.
The main features of using the ground robotic platform in the company are highlighted as:
- absence of CO2 emissions;
- elimination of human factor;
- the platform operates along a programmed route with a deviation from the trajectory of no more than 1 cm.
Based on its own experience, Syngenta emphasizes the versatility and efficiency of using ground robotic platforms in gardens and plantations. Today, such platforms are capable of not only spraying but also transporting goods and mowing between rows.
The experience of treating blueberries with drone-sprayers was shared by the head of SFG "Victoria Sens" Oleksandr Yevpak. He debunked the risks of phytotoxicity in plants. On the other hand, he noticed better substance absorption with the ultra-low volume application (ULV) technology by drones, prompt and quality application without trampling on areas with complex configurations, and timely execution of planned operations thanks to unmanned solutions.
The technology developed by the farm involves on average 10-12 treatments (fungicide + insecticide). Usually, a LOVOL tractor with a power of 45 hp and a mounted sprayer with a tank volume of 700 liters are used for this purpose. An area of 20 hectares was treated over 1-2 working shifts with a discharge rate of 200-250 liters per hectare. At the same time, the farmers have a limiting factor: their own apiary for pollination of plantings allows treatments to be carried out only at night from 10-11 pm to 4-5 am.
From his own experience, Oleksandr Yevpak highlighted the following disadvantages of using traditional equipment:
- Prolonged application over the entire planting area. High risks of yield deterioration, especially if there are weather constraints and a surge in pest or disease populations.
- Trampling of bushes and crops on the inter-rows, in the case of a dense canopy lying on the passage.
- In a season of excessive soil moisture, it is impossible to work in plantings (water stagnation on uneven areas, hollows).
At the same time, he notes important aspects of technology that affect the quality of berries:
- Uniform and timely application of preparations over the entire planting area. It's important when applying chemical preparations with adherence to the terms of substance withdrawal from the berry at the time of harvesting.
- Minimizing the time interval between treatments on each of the plantations. It's important for diseases and types of pests that spread rapidly.
- Homogeneous weather conditions for application and absorption of preparations.
- Avoiding detoxification by the preparation and stress due to phytotoxicity.
Considering the disadvantages of traditional wheeled technology in growing blueberries, the farm decided to conduct an experiment on its own field with the following tasks:
- Confirm the achievement of the biological effect of PPP (Plant Protection Products) during ULV (Ultra-Low Volume) application by the agro-drone;
- Check the risks of phytotoxicity during tank mixture operation with the agro-drone;
- Develop and evaluate the effectiveness of technical parameters for conducting operations by the agro-drone;
- Test the technical possibility of preserving the standards of active substance with ULV technology;
- Assessment of economic effectiveness due to resource savings and the expediency of engaging service companies for operation execution.
As a result, according to the head of the farm, the biological effect of PPP (Plant Protection Products) was achieved, and no phytotoxicity was observed. Instead, the high efficiency of application on areas with complex configurations and speed was confirmed: treating 20 hectares took 1.5 - 2 hours, while with traditional technology, the same operation required about 7 hours.
The main advantages noted by SFG “Victoria Sens” in working with spraying drones on blueberries are:
- adherence to parameters for forming and harvesting higher quality berries;
- timely application of preparations over the entire planting area;
- improved plant coverage by the preparation;
- high and rapid assimilation of the preparation;
- minimizing the time interval between treatments on each of the plantations.
Apart from employing agro-drones on vegetable and berry plantations, Ukrainian agrarians have already successfully tested unmanned solutions for nut orchard treatment. In particular, the chief agronomist of the “Gals Agro” farm, Evgeniy Layter, and the co-founder of the service company Dron Agronom, Yaroslav Fedoryshin, shared their unique case of pollinating a hazelnut orchard with XAG spraying drones, which allowed with minimal costs to increase the number of nuts in the inflorescence and, ultimately, the yield of the orchard.
In the “Gals Agro” farm, which has a land bank of 2400 hectares in the Kyiv region, the area of the hazelnut orchard currently stands at 400 hectares. Hazelnut is a perennial crop with a long growing period. The entrance of plantings into the fruiting stage occurs no earlier than 4-5 years after planting. Industrial fruiting is possible after the 5th year of cultivation. Pollination is the main way of obtaining nuts. However, hazelnut is a plant that is pollinated by wind, and hazelnuts also exhibit sterility to pollen of related varieties. Thus, pollen from other varieties is needed.
Guarantees of successful pollination:
- flowering of female flowers;
- flowering of male catkins;
- coincidence of pollen release timelines and flowering of female flowers;
- favorable climatic conditions.
According to the chief agronomist of the farm, the complexity of growing hazelnuts lies in the absence of effective supplementary pollination methods. The standard technology involves pollination thanks to the existing plantations of pollinator varieties.
Why the farm decided to try the services with spraying drones:
- the pollination period is early spring, when the soil is still moist, and traditional wheeled equipment cannot always enter the area;
- a need for high speed of operation execution (large area and the need for rapid use of the solution);
- low cost of service with spraying drones;
- convenience of operation execution.
As a result, after the operation, the farm noted minimal labor time expenditures and maximal effect from the operation:
- increased yield;
- increased number of nuts in the inflorescence;
- economically justified supplementary pollination at a young age.
Advantages of using drones in pollinating hazelnut orchard:
- ability for rapid deployment due to equipment mobility;
- low need for labor resources.
- increased orchard yield.
- acceleration of project payback.
Valeriy Yakovenko, co-founder of the DroneUA Group of companies and drone expert in FAO, shared a practical case of treating organic blueberries at the Family Garden farm.
On an area of 130 hectares, a spraying drone was used to apply a biofungicide at a rate of 6 liters per hectare. Whereas previously, a Lovol ft 504 tractor and a trailer sprayer were used for this same operation, requiring a rate of 400 liters per hectare. Thus, the water savings amounted to 51,220 liters.
The fuel consumption with traditional ground equipment was 390 liters (Fuel consumption for 1 working shift with 10 hectares processed + travel to/from the field averages 30 liters), with the XAG spraying drone - up to 30 liters (on average 150 – 300 ml of fuel is used to charge 1 battery). Thus, the fuel savings amounted to 360 liters (17,280 UAH).
To carry out the operation on 130 hectares, 13 working shifts would have been needed with traditional equipment, with a working team with one spraying drone - 3 shifts. Taking into account the increase in work productivity, water logistics costs, labor costs, the total cost savings amounted to 40,288 UAH for just one operation.
However, with single-component treatments at the Family Garden farm, there can be up to 22 treatments per season.
Thus, the total savings during drone operations can amount to 886,336 UAH or $23.3 thousand (40,28822), considering the cost of the XAG V40 working set to be $24 thousand.
Apart from resource savings, thanks to uniform treatment in a short time, the quality and yield of the berries are increased, providing an additional economic effect.
- increase in yield by +3% to 90 kg/ha with an average yield of 3 tons/ha;
- additional income of +1.2 million UAH at an average price of 104 UAH/kg in 2022.
- increase in purchase price (with average quality the average price is 104 UAH/kg; with high quality the average price is 117 UAH/kg);
- additional income of +5.1 million UAH (at average price – 40.8 million UAH; at average price of highest quality - 45.9 million UAH).
Under such conditions, one working set of spraying drones ($24 thousand) pays off over one growing season.
Thus, during the online seminar "Drones, Robotics and Unmanned Solutions as Tools for Cost Optimization in Fruit and Vegetable Growing and Gardening", experts and farmers presented their practical experience in using agro-drones for plant treatment, shared their own mistakes and achievements, in order to contribute to the development of the domestic agro-industry and increase the profitability of an increasing number of farms.
Today, drones in gardening and fruit and vegetable growing not only carry out high-quality monitoring of plants at all stages of vegetation and allow timely making of the most effective decisions but are becoming indispensable tools in protection, feeding, and even pollination of trees.
Unlike the already established market for crop spraying drones, the demand for pesticide application by drones in horticulture and the fruit and vegetable sector is just beginning to form. However, leading agrochemical companies are already actively working on adapting preparations for application by spraying drones directly in horticulture. In particular, a lion's share of practical experiments is conducted using ground-based spraying drones, which is especially important for operations in netted gardens.
Therefore, in the coming years, a rapid increase in the popularity of spraying drones and ground robotics in this sector is expected: about 80% of all technological operations with fungicide, insecticide, and micronutrient application will be carried out by agro-drones. Ground-based spraying drones will continue to be refined to make garden care simpler and more efficient. The use of aerial spraying drones will be broadly integrated into the technological map of berry and vegetable crops.