A drone flies over a piece of farmland, about a couple of meters above the crops, spraying exact amounts of pesticide with unparalleled precision. In three minutes, the spraying for a mu of land, equivalent to about 0.0667 hectare, is done.
Such use of drone technology is a growing practice in rural China, where some 120 million hectares of land are being farmed to feed the country’s 1.4 billion population. As young people quit the land to go to the city in search of more lucrative work, drones are a big help to farmers faced with labor shortage.
Since drones are operated by professional pilots, and not by the farmers themselves, a trio of enterprising young urbanites from Beijing have launched an online sharing platform connecting drone operators with farmers. Named Farm Friend, the platform opened just in February 2016, but has already raised more than US$10 million from leading investors such as GGV Capital and the Xiaomi-linked Shunwei Capital.
With agriculture making up nearly a tenth of China’s economy, it’s no surprise that the agricultural drone market, while still in its infancy with just 2,324 devices in 2015, will see exponential growth ahead. Some are forecasting a market worth nearly RMB 13 billion by 2021.
Not only is drone spraying 15–80 times more efficient than manual spraying – a farmer can complete just 20 mu a day, compared with a drone that covers 300–400 mu – it also consumes 50% and 90% less pesticide and water, respectively. More importantly, with the use of drones, farmers and farm workers no longer need to handle pesticides and risk endangering their health.
By the end of June 2016, Chinese farmers were using 4,890 drones, overtaking Japan as the country with the most number of agricultural drones in the world. And that number is expected to hit 8,398 in 2017.
However, behind such growth lies a chaotic market with a string of issues.
"The agricultural drone industry has been growing without regulation and standards, which has resulted in cutthroat competition in pricing and unpredictable service," said Yu Yang, who founded Farm Friend with Hou Xiaoxiao, an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, and Meng Fanqi, a former manager at Huawei.
Yu has a master's in computer science from the National University of Defense Technology, and had prior to Farm Friend co-founded a drone manufacturing startup, Linker Networks Inc. It was during his time as CTO at Linker Networks that Yu, a farmer’s son, first discovered the market potential of using drones in agriculture, as well as the issues plaguing the sector.
Hence Farm Friend was created, standardizing the work processes and assessment criteria of drone operators that offer their services on the platform. For instance, a drone booked on Farm Friend completes the spraying of one mu of land in three minutes.
Farm Friend being the world’s first sharing platform for agricultural drones, the founders found themselves having to make the best of whatever they had before them.
“We had no example to refer to, neither in China nor the rest of the world,” Yu recalled. And as CEO, he gathered all the talent he could find – be it from agriculture, finance, sales or the internet sector – to make up the Farm Friend team.
They started with just one drone team, landing their first booking for spraying 500 mu of land two months after the platform launched. Eight months later, as more drone teams joined, Farm Friend had completed the spraying for 100,000 mu – a big encouragement to Yu and his team. By the end of this year, they expect to reach 8 million mu (533,333 hectares).
By now the platform has about 1,000 registered drone operators (both teams and individual pilots) with over 5,000 drones. Having a centralized booking platform like Farm Friend allows these operators to move around the country, wherever and whenever their services are needed since peak agricultural season in an area lasts just two to three months – reducing their idling rates.
"Take the drone team from northeast China, for example,” said Yu. “The peak season there lasts only during the months of July and August. During other times of the year, they are assigned work in southern China, where the peak season is longer.”
On the demand side, Farm Friend gained access to farmers by partnering with local agro-dealers, whose stores attract farmers gathering to replenish their agricultural supplies. This way, Farm Friend collects bulk regional bookings. Farmers and agro-dealers book drone services via its website or WeChat account for a fee of RMB 10–15 per mu. The platform charges a 15% commission on top.
It has now over 120 partner agro-dealers and operates in 10 provinces, with physical branches in eight of them.
But for Yu, this is just the beginning. His vision is for Farm Friend to become a comprehensive agritech platform serving and coordinating between all segments of the production and supply chain.
"Farm Friend started with agricultural drones, but it will go beyond that. Drones are just a way to break into the market while solving a current need," he has said.
“What Farm Friend seeks to offer is a professional agricultural services online platform that connects farmers, agritech services and suppliers.” he stressed. “The more standardized the service, the lower the cost will be.”