ALOR SETAR – The monotonous view of the vast verdant paddy field was interrupted by the sight of a white drone hovering about two metres from the ground. The drone appeared to be spraying a liquid on the paddy stalks below.
At the edge of the 10-hectare paddy field in Batas Paip, Kuala Kedah, there stood a youth in red coveralls complete with nose and mouth cover looking towards the drone.
The youth is Mohd Ataillahwardi Ahmad, 21, a drone pilot. He controls the drone using a remote control held in his hands. He is not flying the drone for leisure. He is in fact at work, spraying pesticides on the 60-day old paddy stalks.
After some time Mohd Ataillahwardi, affectionately called Atai, lands the drone on the nearby bund to refill the pesticide before continuing with his work.
“Whether it is for the first time or after many times, one will always have an uneasy feel when operating the drone. I always fear that the settings could go wrong, the drone has technical problems or I did not get the right mix of the pesticides,” said the drone pilot employed by Syarikat Perniagaan Peladang MADA Sdn. Bhd (MADACorp), a subsidiary of Muda Agricultural Authority (MADA).
ATAI HELPS BRING TECHNOLOGY TO THE PADDY FIELDS
Atai who started working for MADACorp since early this year said his interest in drones helped him to become a drone pilot after he finished his studies at the MADA Rice Training Centre (MRTC).
He started by undergoing training in paddy cultivation for two years and has learnt all the aspects involved in paddy cultivation.
“During the course, I learnt that with the advent of technology paddy cultivation has seen tremendous changes unlike before. It can be said that paddy cultivation is less labour intensive with 75 percent of the field work now being conducted through the use of agricultural technology,” he explained.
The Alor Setar born lad noted that the use of new technologies in agriculture is crucial in ensuring the sustainability of paddy cultivation.
Among the new technology examples are the use of drones, now a valuable option for paddy cultivators in spraying pesticides unlike through the traditional way which is labour intensive and slow.
Atai who sees the drone’s potential in paddy cultivation noted; “If we are to work our fields, we can’t be solely depending on our physical strength”.
“We can’t be depending on the youngsters, especially when most are not willing to work in the fields. If we are to take foreign labour, we can’t see much returns from our capital. So, among the ways to woo the youngsters to the fields is to introduce technology in cultivation,” he added.
SIX DRONES IN SERVICE
MADACorp now has six units of Agriculture Drone and they are deployed within the MUDA region, that covers 27 Farmers Area Organisation (PPK).
The drones are powered by batteries and come complete with Global Positioning System (GPS) feature. They are made of durable carbon fibre and aerospace aluminium.
As for Atai, operating the drones has its own challenges. Though there are many who could operate the drone but it goes beyond passion to make the drone, like the model 3W-ETH-XN-10L that he operates, to work in the field.
“Not only one has to work under the hot sun for hours but also must be knowledgeable in getting the right mix of the pesticides. A wrong mixture of pesticides could destroy the plants causing big losses,” he said.
DURABLE AND EFFECIENT
Meanwhile, MADACorp’s General Manager (Marketing) Ahmad Johari Zainul noted that the company gave priority for those who have gone for training with MRTC to become drone pilots.
Tough many have tried their hands as agriculture drone pilots, only a few were able to last long in the vocation.
“Not many could withstand the scorching sun, wade through the mud or bear the noxious smell of the chemical mix. That’s not all, work starts as early as 7 a.m,” he explained.
Apart from that the pesticide spraying task is also dependent on the weather, and the wind speed and direction. The task cannot be carried out during rain or strong winds.
“A drone pilot should be able to plan out his task to achieve effective outcomes especially when looking at the fact the paddy fields are scattered and some of them too small to achieve economies of scale,” he said.
The Farmers’ Area Organisations are the ones to identify the areas to be sprayed with pesticide. The task has to be planned out carefully to meet MADACorp’s target of covering 10-15 hectares daily by each of the drones.
However, MADACorp’s target of covering up to 15 hectares per day is often not achievable in small and scattered fields owned by individuals.
On the opportunities for drone pilot, Ahmad Johari is optimistic that their future is bright as the agriculture sector will see more drones in service by 2020 especially in paddy cultivation.
“With more advanced drones coming up, we forsee in the near future drones will also be used to spray fertilisers or even plant the seeds,” he said.
On the price of the drones, Ahmad Johari highlighted that as the technology is still new they are very costly with each unit of the drone costs between RM75,000 and RM80,000.
However, he is confident that the prices will come down and even the farmers could afford them one day.
“For a start and to promote the use of drones MADACorp imposes a RM20 charge for every 3.3 hectares, the same rate for spraying the conventional way using manpower. With drone the spraying process is not only faster, systematic and without missing out any areas as it uses the GPS function,” he explained.
On the possibility the pesticide sprayed using drones may contaminate the air, Ahmad Johari has this to say; “Intensive field studies have been conducted and the possibility of the pesticides sprayed using the drones contaminating the air is remote. – BERNAMA