Drones offer high-tech help to Japan’s aging farmers
TOME, Japan – The next generation farmhand in Japan’s aging rural heartland may be a drone. For several months, developers and farmers in northeast Japan have been testing a new drone that can hover above paddy fields and perform backbreaking tasks in a fraction of the time it takes for elderly farmers. “This is unprecedented high technology,” said Isamu Sakakibara, a 69-year-old rice farmer in the Tome area, a region that has supplied rice to Tokyo since the 17th century.
Developers of the new agricultural drone say it offers high-tech relief for rural communities facing a shortage of labor as young people leave for the cities. “As we face a shortage of next-generation farmers, it’s our mission to come up with new ideas to raise productivity and farmers’ income through the introduction of cutting-edge technologies such as drones,” said Sakakibara, who is also the head of JA Miyagi Tome, the local agricultural cooperative. The drone can apply pesticides and fertilizer to a rice field in about 15 minutes – a job that takes more than an hour by hand and requires farmers to lug around heavy tanks. The Nile-T18 was developed by drone start-up Nileworks Inc and recently tested in collaboration with JA Miyagi Tome and trading house Sumitomo Corp.
Their aim is to ease the physical burden and improve productivity in rural areas battling decades of falling birth rates and migration to urban areas. In Tome, farmers are an average 67-68 years old and they may only have another 4-5 years of farming left, Sakakibara said. “It’s a matter of whether the body breaks down first, or the tractor,” he added. Compared to larger radio-controlled mini-helicopters that cost around 15 million yen ($135,758) with spray equipment, the drone is smaller and cheaper, with a pricetag of about 4 million yen.