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Mitsubishi, Mitsui plow tech into new solutions for agriculture

Drones, data harnessed to help farmers do more with less

Mitsubishi unit Skymatix provides unmanned aerial sprayers that farmers can program by tablet.

TOKYO -- Two of Japan's leading trading houses are backing high-tech services for farmers in an effort to branch out further beyond their hard-commodity businesses.

Mitsubishi Corp. will soon give growers a way to disperse agricultural chemicals more efficiently using drones. Skymatix, a Tokyo venture owned by the trader and IT group Hitachi, provides large unmanned aerial vehicles able to treat a hectare in about 10 minutes. Farmers input the fields they wanted treated, the chemicals to use and other information by tablet. Any reporting required by municipalities can managed in the cloud, eliminating the hassle of paper documents.

Mitsubishi began a service in July that uses drone-mounted cameras to check on crop conditions by analyzing leaf color. The trading house aims to quickly sign up tens of thousands of customers for these two services and is developing new ones that can make use of the collected data.

Mitsui & Co. is scaling up a agricultural consulting business in North America that advises farmers on boosting their harvests using satellite weather data and soil analysis. The service is offered by Farmers Edge, a Canadian firm in which the Japanese trading house raised its stake in a funding round last year. Now a Mitsui subsidiary, Farmers Edge uses the data to devise efficient fertilization plans that can help growers lower their costs and increase their yields. Mitsui is also considering expanding this business to Japan.

Other Japanese trading companies are also applying technology to businesses where nature can use a helping hand.

Sojitz is working with wireless carrier NTT Docomo and others to test the use of artificial intelligence and the internet of things for bluefin tuna farming in Japan's Nagasaki Prefecture. The goals are to optimize feeding, a task that relies heavily on experience, and to automate the process of counting fish populations.

Marubeni is using drones for its own forestry business, taking aerial photographs to track growth in its pulpwood acreage in Indonesia. The trading firm has 120,000 hectares of forest land there, and the use of drones is proving far more efficient than visual inspections.


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