Looking like a giant mechanical insect, a drone hovers over a rice field in the province of Phetchaburi, in central Thailand.
Wachiwarat Aungsupanith, the 27-year-old CEO of drone-producing company Bug Away, thinks these high-tech contraptions could transform Thai agriculture.
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Spraying fields with pesticides and fertilizers, the drones — which can cover up to 60 acres a day — could boost crop yields, save time and make backbreaking field work much easier, according to Bug Away.
With agriculture forming a major part of the Thai economy, the potential market is sizeable.
According to research and advisory company Oxford Business Group, agriculture in Thailand was worth $31.6 billion, and accounted for 8.5% of national GDP, in 2016, while a third of the country’s labor force work in the sector.
Thailand 4.0 — a government initiative introduced in 2016 that aims to transform the economy — targets growing farmers’ incomes seven-fold by 2037.
Along with rice — the biggest crop — other staples include tapioca, rubber and sugar.
Chinese company DJI pioneered the use of agricultural drones in 2015, and other manufacturers followed suit. Yamaha began selling a model in Japan last year, citing a growing trend of using drones for small agricultural plots that are difficult to spray with unmanned helicopters.
The laws governing the use of drones to spray crops vary around the world. In the UK, for example, Crop Angel is working to get permission to use drones to spray commercial agrochemicals and pesticides.
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Agricultural drones only arrived in Thailand in the last three years, says Aungsupanith, and their use has not yet been widely adopted. But he’s not the only one who sees potential in the market, with Thai company Novy winning awards for its sprayer drones.
Although some might balk at Bug Away’s price tag, which ranges from $2,400 up to $9,000, depending on the model, Aungsupanith hopes younger farmers will embrace the opportunity to use drones. He says his company has cheaper models under development.
If drones become widely affordable, we might see a real buzz around Thailand’s farms.