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Yamaha is well established in the agricultural market with over 2500 unmanned helicopters performing agricultural spraying in Japan and other Asian countries. In recent months Yamaha has announced two new business alliances. The first with Enroute (a Japanese commercial drone manufacturer) will see the two companies share product and commercial information. The second sees Yamaha align with Yamabiko (a Japanese agricultural equipment manufacturer) to co-develop an argichemical delivery system for multi-rotor drones.
Why are these alliances important?
Yamaha has, to date, not offered a multi-rotor drone solution. The large payloads required for unmanned aerial agricultural spraying have typically favoured heavier, engine powered craft. Battery powered drones haven’t, historically, been able to compete.
In recent years the performance of battery powered drones has improved substantially. The most notable example is the DJI Agras MG-1. Although the performance is still not wholly comparable – the DJI drone can carry 10kg for 10 minutes, the Yamaha FAZER can carry 32kg for over an hour – the price isn’t either. The DJI product is less than $10k versus $120k for the Yamaha product. Many farmers or service providers have likely calculated that, despite the smaller carrying capacity and range, it is ‘good enough’ and they can live with multiple flights to cover the same area.
The wisdom in Yamaha’s alliance with Enroute becomes clear. Enroute’s drones are equivalent in price to DJI’s and it has experience in applications outside of agriculture. A lower cost drone solution will help Yamaha compete against DJI and a multi-rotor solution will allow it to move into other vertical applications.
The work with Yamabiko will also be a critical differentiator for Yamaha too. Correctly applying agrichemicals from an aerial craft requires very precise applicator technology related to the chemical being used, liquid viscosity, required drop size and many other factors. Whilst it may be inexpensive and relatively easy to deploy an agricultural multi-rotor, if it cannot effectively apply chemicals it is significantly less effective.
The rationale for these alliances is also driven by Yamaha’s desire to expand its domestic market. As the market for agricultural spraying saturates, Yamaha needs to identify new growth opportunities in other verticals. The alliance with Enroute will give it access to multi-rotor technology that is better suited for things like aerial inspection and photogrammetry.
The good news is that the Japanese government is pushing strongly for an increasing use of technology in the construction industry. The ‘i-Construction’ initiative is designed to increase the productivity of the construction industry, particularly as an aging workforce retires and there is a shortage of labour.
With the Enroute alliance, Yamaha is positioning itself to be able to take advantage of the current market forces in the domestic Japanese UAV market.
Green shoots abroad
Yamaha is targeting growth in overseas markets – notably the US. It is currently trialling the technology in Napa Valley vineyards, but may find the market substantially different to Japan. First, the size of farms/fields in the US are typically much larger than in Japan. In the US market crop spraying by manned aircraft is relatively inexpensive and well established and not requiring too much precision. Second, where drones are used they tend to be used for aerial scanning of crops. This means Yamaha will either need to push on ‘niche’ spraying applications in the US or bring to bear its experience from other market applications. Both will take time.
The European market may be even more challenging for its core agricultural offering. Aerial application of chemicals is prohibited in all but a few niche scenarios. Without a significant push on legislators or a focus on different applications, Yamaha may struggle to expand in Europe.
Time to sell the farm?
Yamaha has millions of successful operational flight hours. It also has a deep understanding of the agriculture market. Although it faces competition – particularly from the 800lb gorilla that is DJI – the alliances it has announced show a desire to enhance its portfolio and expand beyond its core agricultural market. If it can expand its market share in Japan into new applications it may find that success overseas is also easier.