DJI's agriculture drone takes to the air down on the farm

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DJI's MG-1 system uses a wave radar to zoom over crops at a consistent altitude

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They may not capture the imagination in the same way as say, drones that deliver items in 30 minutes or shoot stunning 4K video, but drones stand to have a big impact on agriculture. Crop dusting and seeding has been carried out by aircraft for more than a century, but we are starting to see their autonomous and agile younger cousins emerge as highly suitable tools for the job. This is of course not lost on the world's biggest drone maker DJI, which has just a launched a drone for farmers that can be programmed to cover acres of farmland in pesticides every hour.

DJI's MG-1 is an eight-rotor drone that is water-, dust- and corrosion-resistant and can carry a payload of up to 10 kg (22 lb). It is billed as a safer and more efficient approach to crop-dusting, with DJI claiming it can cover seven to 10 acres (2.8 to 4 ha) of plantation every hour with 40 times the efficiency of manual spraying.

Under the drone's body is a tank for carrying chemicals, which are fed through four downward-facing nozzles via a pressure sprayer system. The system uses a wave radar to zoom over the crops at a consistent altitude so as to better facilitate an even spray. The MG-1 can be flown in automatic, semi-automatic and manual modes and the spray speed can be adjusted to accomodate various chemicals.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the tank can hold 2.6 gal (10 L) of chemicals and the drone can fly for about 12 minutes at a time. This is a far cry from the hundreds of gallons and lengthy flight times of conventional crop-dusting planes, so the MG-1 mightn't be suitable for famers operating in flat, wide-open areas with much ground to cover.

But where they could prove useful is in mountainous farming regions with more complex terrain where their agility can come into play, such as Japan where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for crop-dusting for more than two decades. A recent study where researchers investigated the use of similar systems in the Napa Valley also turned up some promising results. This lead the Federal Aviation Administration to earlier this year clear the unmanned helicopter in question for use in spite of strict drone laws, so an MG-1 zipping around North American farms sometime in the near future isn't entirely out of the question.

The MG-1 will reportedly carry a price tag of US$15,000 and is available for preorder in China now, with South Korea and then other markets to follow.

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