Sugarcane Farming with DJI Agriculture Drone Solutions




A complete solution guide for using DJI Agriculture drones when farming sugarcane


Sugarcane has played a crucial role in human history, serving as a major source of sugar and other products that have profoundly influenced food consumption and trade practices globally. It has been cultivated for thousands of years, originating in Southeast Asia and spreading across the world. Today, it is a vital crop, used not only for sugar production but also for bioethanol, which serves as an alternative fuel source.


Globally, sugarcane is planted on approximately 19.3 million hectares. Brazil leads the world in sugarcane production, followed by India and China. Other countries with significant cultivation include South Africa, Cuba, Thailand, Mexico, Australia, the United States, and Indonesia.


In South Africa, sugarcane is the fifth-largest crop, playing a crucial role in the livelihoods of many farmers. According to South African Sugar Association (SASA), Sugarcane is a strategic crop for KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, where sugarcane production is located, comprising a substantial percentage of field crop gross farming income across the two provinces.


However, as traditional sugarcane farming faces contemporary challenges, drone technology offers substantial advantages.  


Sugarcane cultivation in South Africa



Confronting Conventional Challenges


Despite its importance, sugarcane cultivation today faces several challenges. Traditional methods often involve high costs, inefficient use of chemicals like pesticides or ripeners, and safety risks for workers. Crewed aircraft, traditionally used for crop spraying, are imprecise, lead to chemical drift, and can harm crops in surrounding areas.


Helicopter spraying



When it comes to spraying their sugarcane, growers often face several key issues:


  1. High costs associated with traditional methods
  2. Difficulty contracting traditional aerial spray services
  3. Poor penetration of chemicals
  4. Safety risks to operators
  5. Lack of precision with fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters
  6. Chemical drift causing harm to surrounding crops and the environment




Benefits of DJI Agriculture Drones for Sugarcane Farming


DJI Agriculture drones offer a solution to many of the challenges faced by traditional sugarcane farming methods. These advanced drones can improve efficiency, reduce labor costs, and enhance crop monitoring. By leveraging cutting-edge technology, farmers can achieve more precise pesticide application and better yield predictions.


Let's explore some of the key benefits in more detail:


1. Precise and Even Spraying


One of the standout benefits of DJI Agriculture drones is their ability to spray chemicals precisely and evenly. Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, which fly at heights of around 15 meters, these drones operate at much lower altitudes (2.5-4 meters). This ensures that chemicals reach the middle and lower parts of the plants, enhancing their effectiveness.


When spraying ripeners, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters typically fly at a height of around 15 meters. Due to their high speed, droplets often drift to nearby crops. This is akin to spraying herbicides or growth inhibitors on crops that don't want it.


In contrast, agricultural drones operate at much lower altitudes (2.5-4 meters above crops) and utilize RTK positioning technology for precise, centimeter-level accuracy on complex plots. The downwash from their propellers pushes droplets downwards and ensures strong penetration, reaching not only the tops of plants, but also the middle and lower parts. Droplet size can be flexibly adjusted via the remote controller for better coverage and uniform spraying.


Agrihawk, a South African agricultural drone solution provider, conducted a trial comparing ripener spraying using DJI agricultural drones and fixed-wing aircraft. The trial was carried out on two blocks of sugarcane fields with the same species and growing conditions. Monitoring was done using the Mavic 3 Multispectral and NDVI throughout the process. Results were observed 16 and 37 days after spraying. The NDVI images revealed that the DJI agricultural drone provided more efficient and uniform coverage than the fixed-wing aircraft.


NDVI ripener spraying comparison between DJI Agriculture drones and fixed-wing aircraft (greener corresponds to more vegetation, which means more plants that were not ripened)



High ripener spraying quality by DJI Agriculture drones



2. Increased Estimated Recoverable Crystal (ERC) and Grower Income


The purchase price of sugarcane is typically determined by estimated recoverable crystal (ERC). Using ripeners can significantly boost both sugar production and farmers' income. Traditionally, smallholder farmers in South Africa have been unable to capitalize on chemical ripening, unlike their large commercial counterparts. However, the advent and increased availability of crop-spraying drones have opened new opportunities for these farmers. Drones can efficiently operate in small, fragmented fields where traditional aerial spraying methods struggled.


Extensive trials with commercial farmers have demonstrated the economic benefits of chemical ripening (Van Heerden et al. 2015; Van Heerden 2019; Van Heerden and Ramusandiwa 2021). To explore the viability of crop-spraying drones for smallholder farmers (SHFs), Van Heerden and colleagues, in collaboration with the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI), the University of Pretoria's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and DJI Agriculture dealer PACSys, conducted participatory demonstration trials in various communities to assess the potential increase in ERC from chemical ripening.


During these experiments, 15 SHFs successfully carried out drone ripening trials at 11 different locations. The spraying was completed using either a DJI Agras T20 or T30 drone. The results showed increased ERC yields, ranging from 0.21 to 1.78 t/ha. In other words, the drone intervention led to higher sugar yields.


Learn more about these trials here:



3. Nighttime Spraying Capabilities


In South Africa, summer daytime temperatures can soar to 35-40℃, making these periods suboptimal for spraying due to rapid evaporation. Spray service teams are often fully booked during the optimal hours, necessitating flexible and extended operational hours for pilots. This makes night spraying a crucial option for completing tasks within limited time frames.


However, nighttime spraying is too hazardous for crewed aircraft due to poor visibility and low-altitude flight risks. DJI Agriculture drones, equipped with advanced safety systems and high-brightness LED lights, can accurately detect obstacles even in the dark. For more complex obstructions, pilots can pre-plan their routes, enhancing operational flexibility. Additionally, spraying at night reduces droplet evaporation, improving pest contact and overall efficacy.


Feedback from DJI partners suggests that approximately 40% of DJI Agricultural drone users in South Africa choose nighttime spraying to avoid the summer heat and meet urgent demands during peak seasons.


Agras T40 spraying ripener at night



4. Terrain Adaptability


According to the South African Sugar Association (SASA), there are 20,711 small-scale sugarcane growers. Their fields are often surrounded by natural vegetation or used for other purposes, making conventional aerial crop spraying challenging for these farmers. Agriculture drones offer flexible operation modes, allowing pilots to choose between manual, enhanced manual (M+), or automatic modes based on the plot's shape and size. These small plots (5-10 hectares), which are unsuitable for fixed-wing or helicopter spraying, can now be effectively covered, ensuring higher income for small-scale farmers.


The Agras T50 drone can perform Terrain Following without prior mapping and can begin spraying immediately after field planning, even over large slopes (up to 50°). For steeper plots, Mavic 3 Multispectral with RTK and DJI Terra can be employed for high-precision aerial surveying and mapping, utilizing AI technology to identify objects within the plot. DJI Agriculture drones will then spray along the 3D route, achieving high accuracy. Advanced image transmission technology, OcuSync 3.0, and DJI Relay enhance the signal between the remote controller and the drone, overcoming obstacles with ease. The efficiency and adaptability of DJI Agriculture drones can meet the needs of all sugarcane fields.


Small sugarcane plots on a slope



DJI Relay



Enhanced Safety


Traditional manned aircraft pose significant safety risks. In contrast, DJI drones are unmanned and operated via remote controllers, eliminating these risks. This not only ensures the safety of operators but also makes the spraying process more efficient and reliable.


Spraying crops using crewed fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft presents significant safety risks. In South Africa, Pacsys, a DJI partner, reports that approximately 90% of crewed aircraft used for sugarcane spraying in Ballito are microlights. These microlights are particularly hazardous, as pilots are largely exposed and must use their own arm strength to control the wings, reaching speeds of 60-70 km/h during flight. There have been several safety incidents over the years.





In contrast, agricultural drones operated via remote control offer a safer alternative



Drone Application Opportunities in Sugarcane Farming


Spraying Throughout the Growth Cycle


DJI Agriculture drones can be used at various stages of the sugarcane growth cycle. Here are some key applications:




  • Establishment Stage: Pre- and post-emergence herbicide application to control weeds.
  • Vegetative Phase: Applying fungicides and pesticides to protect the crop.
  • Grand Growth Stage: Targeted treatment with broadleaf herbicides.
  • Ripening Stage: Spraying ripener chemicals to enhance sugar content.


Drones ensure that each application is done with precision, reducing waste and maximizing the effectiveness of the chemicals used. This targeted approach leads to healthier crops and higher yields.



Best Practices for Drone Sugarcane Spraying


Recommended Flight Parameter Settings


To achieve the best results, it's essential to follow recommended flight parameters. Here are some general guidelines for use with the Agras T40 or T50:




Aphid and Thrip Spraying

Application Rate

30 L/ha

30 L/ha

30 L/ha

Droplet Size (µm)

300-450 µm

200-350 µm

200-350 µm

Flight Speed

6 m/s

5.5-8 m/s

5.5-8 m/s

Route Spacing

6.5-7 m

7-8 m

7-8 m

Height above the crop

3.5 m

3-4 m

3-4 m


Herbicide has a high requirement of uniformity and anti-drift, so lower flight speed, lower route spacing and bigger droplet size are used

As sugarcane is taller in later growing stages, 30 L/ha is necessary for better efficacy

* These are parameter recommendations based on general conditions. Please consult your agronomist and the chemical label to evaluate result requirements and terrain characteristics before proceeding.



Tips for Ripener Spraying


  • Ensure wind speed is below 15 km/h.
  • Use medium droplet size depending on wind and temperature conditions.
  • Follow the recommended flight parameters for optimal coverage and effectiveness.





DJI Agriculture drones are transforming sugarcane farming, offering precision, efficiency, and safety that traditional methods cannot match. Whether you're a farmer looking to boost your yields or a drone enthusiast interested in the latest agricultural innovations, these drones represent a significant advancemfent in the field.


By adopting DJI Agriculture drones, farmers can overcome the challenges of traditional farming methods, achieve higher yields, and contribute to sustainable agriculture. If you're ready to take your sugarcane farming to the next level, consider integrating these cutting-edge drones into your operations.


Special thanks to Pacsys, Agrihawk, and Hummingbird for sharing information used in the article above.


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