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    Sky Farmers: The Rise of China’s Agricultural Drone Pilots

    China’s agricultural drone industry is helping to transform farming but faces numerous growing pains.
    Jun 27, 2024#agriculture

    The drone before us unfolds its wings, revealing a wingspan of over two meters. As it rises into the air, its target is not the sky above but the land below.

    Wang Jiansen, a 33-year-old agricultural drone pilot from Taizhou in the eastern Jiangsu province, bridges two worlds. With his feet on the ground and his eyes on the sky, he links new technologies with traditional agriculture through the device in his hands: Wang and his fellow pilots make their living by flying agricultural drones, following the seasons to farms across the country.

    An emerging profession in China, drone piloting was only officially recognized and added to China’s occupational classification code in 2019. Drone pilots like Wang, defined as individuals who operate remotely controlled aircraft to perform predetermined flight tasks, have seen their profession flourish ever since. By the end of 2023, there were 929,000 registered drone users, 1.3 million registered drones, and 194,400 valid drone pilot licenses in China, according to data from the Civil Aviation Administration.

    This growth aligns with the emerging low-altitude economy — which includes industries that use airspace below 3,000 meters for various airborne activities — designated by China as a strategic emerging industry at the Central Economic Work Conference in 2023. Earlier this year, the low-altitude economy was also mentioned for the first time in the annual government work report, further bolstering the importance of the drone sector.

    Roots refreshed

    Wang is unsure where this low-altitude economy will lead his industry and fellow drone operators. When he decided to join this sector a few years ago, agricultural drones were a nascent pursuit, creating many new job opportunities. Since then, Wang has watched a gold rush overtake the industry. With more people flooding in, competition has intensified, and his work has become much less profitable than it once was.

    Before entering the drone industry, Wang tried various jobs but never achieved much success. Eventually, he decided to return to his parents’ home. His family owns almost 100 acres of land, and his father had a well-established traditional agricultural machinery business in their hometown of Taizhou. However, a pressing issue had emerged: the rural workforce was shrinking. The youngest field workers they could recruit were over 50 years old, and the cost of hiring laborers to apply fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides was rising year after year.

    It was these factors that led Wang and his friends to decide to pool their money to buy an agricultural drone so they could spray their fields themselves. Wang had never imagined he’d spend his days working with fields of crops like his farmer father. And while the nature of their work is similar, the methods are vastly different.

    In 2017, Wang purchased his first agricultural drone, along with a generator, extra batteries, and insurance, at a cost of over 10,000 yuan ($1,377). At that time, many local drone companies were beginning to eye the agricultural sector, and the market had high hopes for drones. Qualified drone pilots were rare, and Wang’s agricultural drone was a novelty. Whenever he flew it over the fields, he would always attract a crowd of onlookers.

    With supply comes demand

    Jin Hailin decided to join the drone industry as a distributor, recognizing the opportunities posed by the growing integration of technology and agricultural practices. Agricultural drones, for example, offer undeniable advantages over manual crop spraying, including improved spray atomization for 30-60 times greater efficiency than manual spraying, according to China’s leading drone manufacturer DJI. They’re also safer, requiring no human contact with fertilizers during application. More importantly, agricultural drones can reduce labor costs.

    Jin visited Cixi, a small city in the eastern Zhejiang province, to investigate experimental drone crop spraying techniques. Initially skeptical about their effectiveness, he wanted to gauge the farmers’ personal opinions. Their responses surprised him. “Even if the results aren’t great, we still have to try using drones to spray the fields because we simply can’t find anyone to do the work manually,” one farmer told him.

    He later visited villages in Shanghai and other parts of Zhejiang province to promote agricultural drones for crop spraying and encountered a common question from farmers: Could drones really achieve the same results with one or two liters of chemicals compared to the five or 10 liters required for manual spraying?

    Jin assembled a team of eight or nine drone pilots, investing heavily in staffing and management. In the beginning, the team sprayed crops for free to promote the technology. Results came quickly: For instance, herbicide effectiveness was visible within 10 to 14 days. Jin also held promotional classes in villages for small groups of villagers, most of them elderly.

    Growing market demand fostered many agricultural drone organizations and pilots. Pilots became industry linchpins, purchasing from manufacturers and distributors while selling services to farmers. Over the years, Jin even expanded his services to include drone education, teaching aerial photography and maintenance skills.

    Working like migratory birds

    Lu Xiaohu, a friend and occasional colleague of Wang’s based in Shanghai, also established an agricultural drone spraying team. Lu described his pilots as “migratory birds,” moving several times each year in sync with crop growth patterns.

    For drone pilots who serve all parts of the country, the year is divided into different crop spraying seasons. Work begins with wheat sowing, followed by a short break after two spraying cycles. June marks the start of rice season, with fertilization and pesticide application continuing until September. This coincides with corn cultivation, leaving many pilots needing to juggle jobs between regions.

    To request spraying, regular customers usually contact Wang days in advance via phone or WeChat. When the time comes, he gathers his equipment and travels to the farm to spray the fields. It’s not uncommon for agricultural drone pilots to work continuously for 20 hours or even longer per day. Many agrochemicals require application within specific timeframes, and unpredictable weather, like last April’s frequent rain, forces overtime to meet the deadline. “There was rain nearly every day (last spring), so to make the most of the rare sunny days, I worked 36 hours straight,” Wang recalled.

    Not always smooth flying

    In its first year of operation, Jin’s drone spraying team covered nearly half of China. The team’s best pilot even recorded the third-highest workload in DJI’s drone operation records.

    Jin said the frontline pilots in his team have accumulated operation areas of tens of thousands of acres. Under favorable conditions, a hardworking agricultural drone pilot can earn over 300,000 yuan a year.

    Wang didn’t start out with the intention of making big money — he was just trying to meet his own needs. Later, a local agrochemist introduced him to many farms and individual clients. As he gradually built up his business in Taizhou and expanded to other areas, Wang has been witness to the growth of the agricultural drone industry.

    Wang says this success and drone pilots’ incomes are hard-earned. Early mornings and late nights are common, with the busiest seasons coinciding with the hottest weather. Pilots spend their days driving pickup trucks loaded with drones, generators, water tanks, hoses, and fuel barrels between fields and orchards. A helper — often the pilot’s wife or a hired hand — rides in the passenger seat and is responsible for changing batteries, carrying pesticides and fertilizers, and other tasks.

    Once work starts on a field, an agricultural drone requires frequent battery changes — generally every five to eight minutes. Spraying 200 mu (33 acres) of land requires 30 to 40 battery changes.

    And like farmers, drone pilots are at the mercy of the weather. Rain dilutes chemicals, strong winds ground drones, and high midday temperatures can force pauses as sprayed chemicals may evaporate, reducing their effectiveness. In summer, Wang often works from evening until eight or nine the next morning. Experienced pilots like him are adept at working at night. Wang explains that nighttime spraying prevents heat-induced phytotoxicity — adverse effects caused by chemical substances — and reduces chemical evaporation. Additionally, some pests are nocturnal, making nighttime spraying more effective. However, new pilots are hesitant to work at night due to limited visibility — if they’re assigned a field with numerous obstacles, they could easily crash their drones.

    Pilots dread crashes the most. If they need to send a damaged drone for repairs, it can mean days of downtime without any work — especially if there’s a repair backlog. In the early days, drones weren’t as robust as they are now, and Wang often had to take his directly to the dealer for repairs. By observing these repairs, he learned to handle some fixes himself. During peak farming seasons, a grounded drone can cost thousands of yuan a day in lost income.

    As the industry grew, pilots found that agricultural drone work could not provide year-round stability. They often need to be highly mobile, ready to travel wherever work arises, and in off-seasons, many seek other work to supplement their incomes. For example, some of Lu’s team go to the mountains of the northwestern Shaanxi province to pilot drones used to install solar panels.

    Wang has also noticed intensifying price wars as more people join the drone-for-hire industry. When he first began, the standard fee was above 10 yuan per mu, but now the price has nearly halved. New teams entering the market with lower rates have driven down profits and intensified competition.

    “In the past, we charged about 5.5 yuan per mu at many farms, but that gradually dropped to 4.5 yuan. Now it’s even as low as 3.5 yuan,” said Wang. After subtracting accommodation and travel expenses, he calculated that many jobs incurred net losses, forcing him to give up certain clients. “In this business, a penny earned is a penny spent,” he added, noting that high-frequency flying adds strain to drone motors, shortening their lifespan. Currently, Wang has to replace his drone almost every year.

    The industry takes off

    “Now there are too many drones, and it’s getting harder to make money,” Wang said. In just a few years, although the market has grown, competition is fierce and drone pilots are no longer as highly sought after as they once were. With advancements in drone automation, pilots also face the potential weakening of their roles.

    Today’s drones are highly advanced: When preparing to spray a field, operators can pre-set a drone’s spraying parameters, flight height, and other data via the controller. Once initiated, the drone follows these pre-programmed settings to apply the required agrochemicals on autopilot. Barring obstacles like wires or trees, pilots often only need to press a button and wait for the drone to complete its task and return.

    Beyond the agricultural drone teams and aerial crop protection alliances operated by drone dealers, individual farmers like Wang are free to purchase drones for personal use. Farmers don’t need a high level of training to operate a drone, and after learning the basics, they can get started quickly. Over the years, more than 7,000 pilots have graduated from Jin’s courses, with over 3,000 specializing in agriculture. And drone-related careers have become increasingly attractive to young people, spurring a new cohort of institutions offering drone training and pilot licenses.

    The Civil Aviation Administration of China issues the nation’s only legally recognized drone license. Similar to a driver’s license, aspiring pilots must study aviation regulations, flight principles, meteorology, and other theoretical knowledge before successfully completing a series of flight maneuvers before they can obtain one.

    As drones become increasingly common in various industries, drone operation skills are likewise growing in demand. It could be said that drone pilots now serve as connectors between disparate industries, bringing new possibilities to traditional fields. Across the country, more vocational schools and colleges are establishing drone-related training programs, with graduates pursuing careers in crop protection, aerial photography, surveying, and even drone light shows.

    Since starting his drone venture, Jin has deepened his agricultural knowledge. He believes crop protection is currently the most mature area in the drone industry, but this role still requires pilots to have skills beyond “just filling a tank and pressing a button.” Pilots must understand the different spraying approaches for different crops, different growth stages, and different diseases and pests. “In the past, I thought that farmers’ work was nothing special, but the more I learn about agriculture, the more I realize that the thousands of years of knowledge and experience that our ancestors accumulated are far more useful than many other things,” he said.

    Jin sees drones and pilots as pioneers in the transformation of modern agriculture, bridging past and future farming practices. In 2022, his team began experimenting with variable-rate fertilization, which involves using a survey drone to photograph fields, assessing crop growth, and then uploading the data to a digital platform. The platform then generates a prescription map for precise application of the required agrochemicals by spraying drones. To Jin, this represents the future of precision digital agriculture.

    Looking ahead, Jin is optimistic. He hopes ongoing policy developments in the low-altitude economy will create more applications for the drone industry and opportunities for pilots.

    As this year’s rice season approaches, he and his colleagues pine for more work — these pilots are ready to hit the road once again.

    Reported by Zhang Lingyun and Zheng Ziyu.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Original. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: An agricultural drone sprays pesticides in Zaozhuang, Shandong province, 2020. VCG)