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Red Sparrow drones take flight to aid farmers in fight against pests

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A drone returns after spraying pesticide. Photo supplied

Red Sparrow drones take flight to aid farmers in fight against pests

The arrival of smart agriculture in the form of drone technology applications signals a new dawn for the Kingdom’s primary industry sector.

In a nation that has depended on traditional crop cultivation and management methods for centuries, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – commonly known as the drone – represents a new way for agricultural stakeholders to increase productivity and achieve safe, sustainable farming.

Red Sparrow, a start-up based in Phnom Penh, was founded in 2019 by “agripreneur” Pha Bunnath following an approach from the Australian government-funded Cambodia-Australia Agricultural Value Chain Program (CAVAC).

This saw Bunnath look to UAV technology to find a solution for alleviating the hazards of excessive pesticide exposure during agricultural pest control applications.

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CEO Pha Bunnath with the XAG-P30 drone. Adrian lee

“The agricultural system relies heavily on commercial plant protection products, which help farmers by protecting crops from insect pests, diseases and weeds. However, it also comes at a profound cost to the farmers and workers who apply the pesticides, with prolonged exposure causing health-associated risks.

“After extensive research, I found an agricultural drone produced by [Chinese manufacturer] XAG [and distributed internationally by XAG Australia] to be a viable solution to support safe, efficient and reliable pest control applications.

“When XAG concluded the demonstration of its P30 Plant Protection system, I was truly convinced that this agricultural drone set-up would be a safe and sustainable pest control solution for farmers and the agricultural community in Cambodia.

“As well as being equipped with a second generation chemical refilling system that distances operators from harmful chemicals, the XAG’s Intelligent Liquid Tank also allows the drone to adjust chemical output to prevent environmental pollution caused by chemical overdosing,” he said.

Significant pesticide reduction

For precision spraying, the navigation system developed for XAG-P30 drones incorporates an RTK [real-time kinematic] flight control system that delivers millimetre-level accuracy rather than the metre-level accuracy provided by GPS.

Aided by iRASS – the intelligent rotary atomisation spraying system – centrifugation technology, the XAG-P30 drone significantly enhances spraying precision and reduces the use of pesticides by more than 30 per cent. Artificial intelligence (AI) failure prediction has also been included to ensure flight safety.

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The Red Sparrow team with XAG-P30 and XMission UAVs. Photo supplied

While Red Sparrow at present only focuses on pest control applications for the agricultural industry, Bunnath has plans for the company to diversify into other unmanned vehicle (UV) driven farm cultivation and management applications.

He believes the advanced automated applications engineered by XAG, such as the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) and “XMission” field monitoring system, will help immensely as the nation works toward the modernisation and commercialisation of the farming sector to boost agricultural exports.

Farming in the Kingdom has been transforming over recent years, with the use of tractors and harvesting machines gaining ground, with almost 90 per cent of the agricultural community having turned to mechanised cultivation approaches compared to 10 per cent still practising traditional methods.

Having observed this trend, Bunnath sees great potential in the adoption of UV and AI-assisted technologies for pest control as well as other essential agricultural requirements.

“Although the XMission field monitoring system has yet to be officially launched, this innovative technology-driven application is set to become a game changer for the agricultural industry. It will revolutionise the way farms will be operated and managed in the future.

“Individual or swarms of up to eight UVs can be deployed to support real time monitoring of crop and soil information. Images captured by UVs from the field is seamlessly relayed back via a built-in mobile data communication module to a central monitoring system for analysis.

“And this will enable agronomers and farmers to make critical decisions on crop growth and management,” said Bunnath.

‘More by doing less’

Agriculture contributes more than 20 per cent of the nation’s GDP with close to 80 per cent of the population involved in the sector.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Drone technology has also been developed for ground applications. Photo supplied

By promoting the use of drones in the Kingdom’s agricultural sector, Red Sparrow is aligning with the Australian government’s CAVAC aid program’s objective of lowering input costs and increasing competitiveness for farmers.

“Farmers now pay an average of $10 per hectare to pest control service providers for their time. Using conventional backpack-type sprayers, they are only able to cover up to two hectares per day.

“With our drones, which can be flown automatically once the flight control application is downloaded onto their smartphones, these service providers will be able to cover up to 20ha per day and by doing so increase revenues.

“By increasing the efficiency of agricultural service providers, whereby they achieve more by doing less, we also hope in time to reduce the cost of the services farmers have to pay to grow and maintain their crops,” said Bunnath.

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