Agricultural drones: The shape of Indian agriculture to come

In our agrarian economy, drone technology certainly deserves policy-pushes by the government along with awareness drives and R&D by start-ups to make even small-scale farmers understand its benefits.

As of January 2018, the agriculture sector’s contribution to India’s GDP was 17–18 per cent, according to India Economic Survey 2018. Given the importance of agriculture in the economy of India, the 2003 NSS 59th assessment of the sector should be worrisome because it reveals that 40 per cent of Indian farmers would rather be in some other profession and not farming. One of the primary reasons of this disgruntlement is declining returns on investment (ROIs) and other problems such as crop diseases and improper planning of resources.

The use of agriculture drones can take care of a lot of problems that currently plagues the sector, including crop health monitoring, crop treatment and crop scouting, and the importance of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been recognised by both governments and startups. On the one hand, the central government has launched an online platform called Digital Sky Platform for the registration of drones and their operators and on the other, there are 35 drone startups in the country that are working to raise the technological capabilities and reduce the prices of agriculture drones, aka agri-drones. This article is on such drones and the impact they will have in India’s agriculture sector.

Even though agri-drones have not quite arrived in India yet, definitely not on the scale needed, the technology has already started showing an impact. A case in point comes from Maharashtra where sugarcane farmer Babusaheb Tawde’s crop was struck by wilt disease and was diagnosed and saved from being destroyed by agri-drones that captured data with NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) and RGB sensors. The agri-drone that helped Tawde was designed and manufactured by Bengaluru-based 3Thi Robotics, which is working to raise awareness about UAVs among farmers through real-life demonstrations of their usefulness.Vasant Bhat, Co-founder at 3Thi Robotics told us that the biggest challenge impeding the use of agri-drones in India is an acute shortage of skilled manpower to fly, use and maintain the machines. Tawde is now firmly convinced that technology is the only way to better agricultural practices.

Mumbai-based drone startup Pigeon Innovative which started with the design and manufacture of drones for photography drones has also ventured into the agri-drones business and is already running a few pilot projects. “The long-term plan is to manufacture drones for farmers which can carry 20 litres of pesticides for bigger farms. Also, we will manufacture as per the demand grows,” Pigeon Co-founder Dewang Kishor Gala told us.

India, being a largely agrarian society, has a lot to gain if it taps the full potential agri-drones. These drones can help our farmers increase production by using these drones for:

  1. prevention of environmental damage;
  2. effective monitoring of crop health;
  3. getting insights into the soil health; and,
  4. planning irrigation and the proper use of resources compost.

Jaipur-based SkyMap Global, an Earth observation and analytics company is providing the services listed above by using drone imagery to the farmers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Telangana. The company has also done flood mapping through drones to study the after-effects of the Kerala floods in the region. Ankur Singh, Assistant Manager, Product and Solutions at SkyMap Global says that “Using drones can help farmers generate regular updates on crop production statistics and provide various insights to achieve sustainable agriculture.” He continues that drones can help farmers: calculate exact land sizes; classify types of crops; do soil mapping; with pest management; and, plan harvesting.

A major thrust for agri-drones in India is the rising demand for quality food, furthermore, advancements and adoption of technologies in agriculture and growing farmers’ interest in drones is channelizing venture funding. Even the government is working to promote the manufacture of drones in the country and set up two task forces for designing and making aircraft and UAVs in the country in August this year.

In October this year, the Maharashtra government collaborated with Skymet Weather to keep a tab on weather conditions in the state. Skymet has also done a pilot project for crop assessment using drones, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). “Drones will change the face of agriculture, it will change the entire predictability in the agriculture sector,” said Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis when the collaboration deal was signed. The Maharashtra government, Fadnavis informed, has big plans to incorporate predictable and precision agriculture to bring more sustainability and to give more market linkages to farmers.

 

It is not just the farmers but also the agricultural insurance sector that is using drones to make processes more error-free and efficient. Players in the sector have started using drone-acquired data to calculate the risks and losses on farms that are insured or have applied for insurance. The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Beema Yojana (PMFBY) makes it mandatory to use exponential technology—including remote sensing—in addition to using drone imaging to detect fraudulent claims and discrepancies. “Farmers can claim crop insurance by capturing drone feeds as evidence. Insurance companies also use the drone feeds to estimate damages done to the farmer and exact estimation in terms of money and can also check the claims are genuine or not,” says Singh.

Gala told us that even though “Drones consume less time, for instance spraying cost on 200 acre of farm by drone and manually is same but the time consumed is less,” there is a need to create awareness among small farmers. Large-scale farmers are pretty much aware of the usefulness of agri-drones, says Bhat, “We work with agencies and give trainings to small-scale farmers and give them demos as per their needs.”

Apart from technical know-how and affordability, the lack of trained pilots is a major restraining factor in the growth of the UAV market in India, says Gala, “Small- and mid-scale farmers are usually hesitant to use drones because of the costs involved.”On the issue of affordability, Bhat says, “Farmers can buy agri-drones, but it is expensive to maintain them, in terms of fuel technology. Present drones run on batteries and the cost of maintaining the batteries is a lot.”

The use of agri-drones can transform the agriculture sector in India but the need of the hour is the creation of solid infrastructure and appropriate policies, say drone manufacturers in the country. “It is really depressing that the current policy framework is only a copy of same procedures and policies to register your private helicopter or an aircraft. You can’t fly, use, own or transport the drones properly,” says Bhat.

Development of appropriate and easy to operate software solutions remains the key for application at field scale. In India, where the farmers are mostly marginal and the land holdings are fragmented, spread of drone application may be hindered by its techno-economic feasibility. Moreover, drone cannot be operated publicly without prior permission from the government till now due to safety issues.

Farmers in India gradually becoming aware of the advantages of using drones and what is needed now is to make these machines more user-friendly and inexpensive. Along with these, development of easy-to-use software for flying is critical to penetrate the small and medium-scale farming segment. Drone and tech start-ups in India are playing an important role in this mission by developing innovative solutions and working with government agencies to create awareness of precision farming among people.

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