Chinese Government Pilots Smart Farming Projects Nationwide

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has begun a futuristic, joint-sponsored test on 10 rural farms to develop the use of connected vehicles, telematics and remote-controlled drones for growing rice and other crops.

The initiative was developed with help from experts at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and is being implemented on farms in Jiangsu Province, Chongqing, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region as well as in Henan and Hainan provinces – spanning a range of climates and environments.

For example, on one farm in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, a swarm of drones distribute fertilizer from the skies, whilst self-driving tractors transplant rows of rice seedlings on the ground, all working together on a major rice-growing production base.

The 11-hectare site on Hongwei Farm is a test bed for the next generation of hi-tech agricultural automation and farming practices.

A supervisor at the site, fleet management specialist Wang Fenglong, said the entire operation could be controlled by just one individual. The flying crop sprayers use China's BeiDou Navigation Satellite System to get around, bypassing the usual GPS system used in other countries.

Wang confirmed the tests would be done in different types of geographical locations, and the studies would take place on a variety of crops ranging from tobacco, cotton and rice, to wheat, vegetables and fruit.

A number of research institutes have worked together to develop unmanned machines and autonomous vehicles that operate in a similar way to driverless cars. They are intended to be used for intelligent and high-precision farming for the project, according to Liu Xiaowei, an official with the Farming Mechanization Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The scheme involves many machines such as transplanters, harvesters and crop sprayers. All of the innovations were developed with the help of information technologies including the Internet of Things, cloud computing and big data.

Pang Chunlin, secretary general of the Telematics Industry Application Alliance, said the whole process of agricultural automation in the farm in Heilongjiang is undertaken by Beidahuang Group and is expected to last until 2025. They hope to improve functionality and solve problems through their research.

Taking on board the results of the initiative, authorities expect the machines themselves to be on the market in 2020, potentially revolutionizing the way that farming has been carried out for decades.

Prior to the scheme, China has been promoting telematics in mechanical farming to ease the strain put on farmers in undertaking manual labor. By the end of last year, China already had a mechanization rate of 67% in crop cultivation and harvesting.

The scheme mirrors similar telematics projects and entrepreneurial efforts that have sprung up around the country in recent years. Fruit farmers in Korla, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, for example, used a mass application of drones for artificial pollination this spring.

The operation was preferred over bee pollination because it is more efficient and also much cheaper than other traditional methods using manual laborers.

Zhang Qiang is the head of a drone team at the company employed by farms in Korla to complete the artificial pollination of about 533 hectares of pear trees. "Agricultural drones are up to 80 times more efficient than manual work," he said.

"I believe the mass application of agricultural drones for artificial pollination will kick off a revolution of intelligent farming in Xinjiang," he added.

There, as in other rural areas, many of China's traditional grain producing operations have been experiencing labor shortages. Members of the younger generation are increasingly opting for city jobs.

Heilongjiang is one the country’s main agricultural provinces. Locally, the population decreased last year, while the proportion of over-65s grew to 12.9 percent. Smart farming by big agricultural conglomerates has been touted as a way to tackle the labor deficit, whilst also increasing crop efficiency and maintaining the supply of produce for the growing population in urban areas.

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