Imagine farmers checking in on their crops in ultra HD and at lightning-fast streaming speeds… all in the comfort of their own homes.
That reality isn’t too far away, according to dronemaker XAG. That’s especially in light of the company’s recent partnership with tech giant Huawei, according to XAG co-founder Justin Gong. The Chinese startup has seen many joint ventures quite literally take off in the ag space, including another with German agro-pharma giant Bayer to tackle “crop-devouring monsters”, which we’ll get to. We even have a Q&A with Gong on his outlook. But first up – let’s delve deeper into its collab with the 5G giant.
Gong says the partnership will combine 5G, AI and cloud computing “to boost computing power to whole new levels to help local agriculture operations.” Farmers will be able to live stream their croplands on their mobile phones to help them manage their fields as well as alleviate consumer concerns about food safety — these are particularly heightened in China after a bout of food safety scares over the years.
“Farmers can conduct remote crop disease diagnosis more accurately without staying by the fields and sweating all over,” reads the press release announcing the partnership.
XAG said that 5G’s higher peak download speeds and lower latency increase the speed and precision of data transmission and processing. The next-generation network also improves the control accuracy and stability of drones and robots.
Addressing the Huawei Cloud City Summit in Guangzhou in Mandarin, Gong said that XAG’s drones can now “perceive data, process it via cloud computing, and come back with analysis and treatment solutions in real-time.”
“This was unimaginable in the past, as [without 5G] it was impossible to do the processing onboard the drone,” he added. (Some US players might disagree; SlantRange has long been processing data onboard drones without an internet connection.)
XAG did not reveal details on how the tech collaboration would roll out. Would XAG sell the drones? Or would it operate the drones themselves, selling the service to farmers? The companies did not reveal neither a release date nor a timeline for the product, though XAG spokesperson Anne Xu tells us more information will be revealed in its annual conference in October. Stay tuned for more updates.
Elaborating on its previous collaboration with the Chinese tech giant, XAG said: “The system is designed to accurately record soil and meteorological data of crop growth in the production process. The data can be analyzed to help farmers precisely apply chemicals, sustainably reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers , closing the yield gap and lowering agricultural management costs.”
Check out my fellow reporter Lauren Manning’s discussion piece on how partnerships may be the recipe for success in the post-hype ag drone space.
Read on to find out what XAG’s outlook on China’s agriculture, and how it’s weathering the US-China Trade War.
98% Kill Rate for “Crop-devouring monsters”
Speaking of pesticides, the Guangzhou-based tech startup has also teamed up with Germany’s Bayer to use its tech to kill one big pest with one drone.
China’s currently facing an infestation of fall armyworm, which has spread through nearly a million hectares of crops in 24 provinces as of mid-August, according to an official report In a government-led drone swarm operation, XAG’s drones, loaded with low-toxicity insecticide, achieved a mortality rate of as high as 98%, the company said in a release on September 1.
XAG said its method proves to be more effective than insecticide sprayers, which not only fail to move fast enough against the “ravenous, fast-moving fall armyworm” that can fly up to 100 kilometers in one night. Traditional sprayers also expose farmers to dangerous chemicals. Another plus point here is that the drones can operate after sunset to kill the pests, which feed most actively at night, the company added.
The startup said its atomization spraying mechanism cuts down on pesticide use by 30%, and saves up to 90% of agricultural water. Featuring “micron-level droplets”, the tech helps disperse ultra low-volume pesticides. The drones can also seek out the pests, which usually conceal themselves on both sides of the leaves and the central part of crops.
According to Chinese media reports, XAG’s drones have also effectively been used to control the spread of armyworm in some cornfields in the northern province of Henan.
The drone swarm operation is just one of many advances XAG has made with Bayer. In 2018, they inked an agreement to promote the usage of agriculture UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) and provide customized plant protection services to over 1.37 million farmers in Japan. The country’s Agricultural Aviation Association has given startup the green light for its crop spraying tech, after a “series of strict verification”.
We caught up with XAG Co-founder & VP, Justin Gong to get more details, and his insight.
Joe Gan: Amid the trade war and What is your outlook on China’s agriculture sector?
Justin Gong: Agriculture in China today is rapidly transforming – bothered by problems such as labor shortage, heavy manual field work, soil compaction caused by big machineries, and lastly, unsustainable chemical applications.
Sociologically speaking, in rural areas, parents hold the concept of sending young generations out to study and work in towns and cities, getting away from heavy manual farming work. Together with China’s aging problem, it has led to severe lack of labor for agriculture. With the progress of mechanization, the labor shortage is partially solved, but there is still a huge amount of smallholders whose are uncooperative with big machineries. Small equipment isn’t efficient enough and also rely heavily on manual labor.
To solve these problems, so as to make agriculture smarter and more sustainable, XAG’s drones have been providing services to Chinese farmers in the past few years. We give smart and cool farming tech that is friendly to both the young and old. It has also helped farmers to spray chemicals more precisely with less chemical and water consumption.
I am surprised to see how our tech has been quickly adopted and started growing in rural China. With our digital strategy of developing infrastructure for Chinese farmland, we hope to accelerate the transformation and provide farmers with better services.
How has appetite been for farm tech in China? Has the US-China trade war impacted the sector?
China has 8% of the world’s arable land. The mechanization of planting and harvesting has reached nearly 70%, while that of crop management only accounts for 7%. Therefore, XAG’s market prospect is quite bright, as farming tech can solve existing problems of crop management.
For example, issues such as the management of orchard pests and diseases or plantations on slopes (which are out of service scale of tractors and other big machines); these scenarios are perfect for applications of unmanned aircrafts and robots.
Compared to the U.S., China’s rate of mechanization is relatively low. Chinese farmers are mainly smallholders. Farm tech developing in China focuses more on smartness, precision and applicability.
Coincidentally, field scouting and diagnosing also fit agricultural demands of large-scale, industrialized farms in the US. According to our investigations, many large farm owners suffer from risks of not seeing or knowing what happens in their fields, making the drone tech and agri-AI we developed just the right solutions for them. That is the same reason why our partners in the US reached out to us for collaborations.
The problems we are solving are for global agriculture, for future food systems, and for mankind. Farm tech will not be sacrificed to politics. In the tech world, we care about how to push the edge, entrepreneurs and innovators are always trying to glue the world together.
The US-China trade war surely has an impact on agriculture in both countries, but it actually creates needs for agri-tech to improve the competitiveness of agri-products. Thus, in this sector, I believe the impact shows its active side.
What is the progress of XAG’s expansion worldwide?
Making agriculture smarter for mankind is our ultimate goal. We are progressing our globalization with brand actions, cooperation with different companies, localization with trials and demos supported by local partners.
Currently, XAG has built a distributing network among 38 countries, a few of which are from APAC and EMEA. In the US, we have done the research and started work with strategic partners on export control and compliance. With attention and acknowledgement filling up from everywhere around the world, we have faith in our products and smart agriculture solutions in overseas market.
What makes XAG’s tech stand out against its competitors?
In XAG, every detail of our products is designed for safe, reliable applications in agriculture. Our specialty and devotion in this field has enabled us to provide not only smart farming tools, but also comprehensive softwares, sustainable solutions and leading digital strategies.
With the strong R&D capability for tech such as centrifugal spraying, GIS, battery/material science, database, automation, flight control, we aim to develop open software/hardware platforms to all the sectors and partners in agri-world.
We coordinate field survey, smart farming platforms, farming sensors, agricultural IoT and AI, creating an agri-organic whole for farmland management and global farmers. Compared to plant protection drone companies, our product strategies and domain know-hows are stronger in crop management, also more in line with the future of digital farming.
Other than creating technological gaps, we bond our brand value with customer services, being responsive and supportive to our customers and end users are also what make us superior to our peers.
What are challenges for large corporates in fostering new innovation?
We notice that they are eager for innovation, but lack the domain know-how and deep understanding of the field they want to approach, which makes adopting innovation a bit risky. In large corporates, their risk taking abilities are lower than smaller corporates and start-ups. Therefore, whenever they enter a new field their cautiousness will result in lower adoption and blockers. That is why a partnership strategy is essential to them.
Lastly, what are XAG’s plans for the future in terms of funding? Do you plan on an IPO?
We will release our funding plan later this year in our XAAC (XAG Annual Conference), please stay tuned.
Know a startup making waves with drones in the agtech space? Drop me an email at [email protected].