Drones enlisted to fight fungus blight in rubber heartland

Drones enlisted to fight fungus blight in rubber heartland

Growers check trees on their rubber plantation in Muang district of Trang province. (File photo by Methee Muangkaew)
Growers check trees on their rubber plantation in Muang district of Trang province. (File photo by Methee Muangkaew)

The world’s biggest rubber producer and exporter is experimenting with drones as a tool to combat a leaf-attacking disease that’s spreading through its largest growing region.

Thailand is battling its first ever outbreak of the blight that could cut production by 50% from affected trees. Authorities are waiting to assess the results of using drones to spray chemicals over the ailing trees after the one-week testing phase ends on Friday.

“We’re confident that it’s a better way to tackle the disease. It’s also cost-effective,” Nakorn Takkavirapat, deputy governor of the state-owned Rubber Authority of Thailand, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Two drones each holding 10 litres of chemicals per trip have been flying over 32 hectares in trials over the past week. For each trip, they cover about 1% of the area and operate on autopilot once flying patterns have been established.

The drones help to complete a task that would be difficult for growers to accomplish, and has similarities to the image-collecting drones used on Indonesian oil palm estates. Rubber trees grow as high as 30 metres, and it is hard for growers to reach leaves at the top using high-pressure hoses.

The Pestalotiopsis fungal disease attacks leaves, and is difficult to control as it’s carried in the air. The disease spread in Indonesia and Malaysia, and was first reported in Thailand in September. The Rubber Authority of Thailand estimates 400,000 rai, or 5% of the areas in southern Thailand, are affected. Worries over the impact have helped push global prices to the highest since July.

The drones have limitations, Mr Nakorn said. They work well over flat terrain, but have limits in mountainous areas. However, they’re still better than planes in delivering chemicals to affected areas and better than doing it manually.

“We’re trying everything to find the best way to control the disease,” he said.


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