Falcon Roosts to Rotors: Yamagata Prefecture Employs Drones to Save Crops

Falcon Roosts to Rotors: Yamagata Prefecture Employs Drones to Save Crops

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Cartoon boards run next to an image of a Japanese technician holding a drone
In rural Yamagata Prefecture, an aging population is having difficulty dealing with agricultural pests. Enter the drones.

Even before the Edo period, the Tohoku region was known for its hunting falcons. The Date family of Sendai famously raised such birds, and used them extensively for the entirety of its Edo period history. All of the Three Great Unifiers (the samurai lords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu) wrote to the Date family in hopes of acquiring their own northern hunting birds. There were two falconry centers and an official falconry ground within modern Sendai’s city limits, where the birds were treated better than some Date vassals. Each one got its own room, and attendants caught the smaller birds that these birds of prey ate. They dominated the north’s skies.

In a curious bit of continuity with that history of northern hunting birds, a program spearheaded by Yamagata Prefecture hiring drones from Sendai is using those drones to scout for monkeys, boars, and other pests threatening agriculture around Yamagata City. We’ve recently covered a robot test field in Fukushima and tsunami early warning drones in Miyagi. Read on to learn more about this new endeavor in neighboring Yamagata.

Kawanabe Kyōsai’s depiction of an eagle diving on a monkey. (source)

Creative Solutions for Costly Problems

This project, overseen by the Yamagata prefectural government, focuses on four municipalities in eastern Yamagata Prefecture: Nishikawa town, Asahi Town, Shirataka town, and Yamagata City itself.

Inasmuch as there are already fences and traps and other means in place to prevent pests from harming the local agricultural fields, monkeys, Sika deer, and boars still manage to break through; they have caused a staggering amount of loss to Yamagata farmers. One source estimated that these pests caused the loss of a quarter of the city’s agricultural produce, ¥42 Million in Yamagata city, of which ¥15 million was in the rural Yamadera area, on the city’s eastern edge bordering Miyagi Prefecture amidst the Ōu Mountains. The safety of fruit trees and grape vines are local farmers’ particular concern, and in light of the fact that the Japanese population as a whole is getting older, drone assistance is already a useful tool in improving farmers’ mobility and their ability to manage their property and protect their crops.

A Matrice 300RTK, the drone fielded in this campaign. (source)

Yamagata Prefecture hired Tohoku Drone, a drone photography and education company based in Sendai’s Izumi ward, as its contractor. Tohoku Drone is employing a Matrice 300RTK quadcopter in these efforts. This compact, autonomous drone flies at an altitude of 85 meters, also operating a high-resolution Phase One iXM-100 camera, and can fly without a pilot if so needed. Together with local groups including a hunting club, city/prefectural officials, as well as Tohoku Drone employees, have gathered for these surveys, which have already begun to yield valuable insights into animal habits, preferred pathways, and population numbers.

Because of the high-resolution cameras which can spot targets as small as 1 centimeter, local farmers can better understand where their fencing, traps, and other countermeasures are falling short. This also allows them to avoid ranging to such areas themselves and risk tipping off the animals. The drone has an AI system that handles initial analysis of its camera telemetry, further easing the burden on farmers and others involved in this effort. What’s more, the drone is also equipped with infrared capability for nighttime operations, allowing the study an even broader reach. Hunters can also presumably more easily plan carefully controlled culling, where needed.

Taking to the Skies

This endeavor to improve pest-proofing measures in Yamagata’s agricultural fields is yet another example of Tohoku innovation in the face of challenges presented by nature, the population crisis, and changing times overall. It remains to be seen where the project will go, as it’s still in its early stages. However, as we’ve seen above, its initial results appear to be promising. According to the project specifications released by the prefectural government, these airborne surveys in the four municipalities are slated to run through mid-March, 2023.



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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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