Automation: The Holy Grail Of Modern Agriculture

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Centrally-controlled irrigation can improve productivity in fields
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Throughout the ages, yield from the farm has been majorly dependent on the manual effort put in by the agri community. External factors include weather, water supply and land condition. Introduction of automated equipment and sensorised devices for agriculture ensures that the yield keeps improving, even if other factors are not favourable. We look into the various technologies that are delivering great benefits, and how India is responding to these advancements.

Automated irrigation
Provision for the correct amount of usable water to the farm is extremely crucial. It not only keeps production consistent, it also paves the way to generate a variety of crops. Irrigation methods are many, such as surface irrigation, micro-irrigation, drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and more. In all cases, the focus should be on the amount of water being distributed.

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Satish K.S., founder, Flybird Farm Innovations Pvt Ltd, says, “Small- and marginal-size farmers typically cannot afford irrigation controllers and have to manually control water flow, which can be inaccurate and inconsistent. Over-irrigation or under-irrigation can greatly damage the crops.”

Excess water causes damage due to water-logging in soil, while insufficient water can dry out the crops or result in underwhelming yield. There can be collateral damage to such conditions as well, like sub-optimal water utilisation and water wastage, manifestation of insects and pests, damaged soil conditions—all of which add up to major financial losses for farm owners.

This is where automation plays a vital role. Automated irrigation keeps the soil’s moisture level optimum with no deviations. How is this achieved? Parth Bhatt, product specialist, Energy Bots Pvt Ltd, explains, “An automated setup first understands the wetness of the soil. Strategically-placed humidity, moisture and weather sensors (for rainfall, snowfall and other such conditions) analyse the soil moisture content. Based on a certain threshold value, if the moisture level is measured lower, the microcontroller signals the water line to automatically start the water supply.

“On the other hand, if moisture content exceeds the threshold, water supply is instantly stopped.”

This mechanism ensures that the fields are optimally moisturised—neither too much, nor too little. It also saves misuse of water, which is a major modern-day environmental concern.

Flybird Innovations, for instance, provides a solution called Siri Automatic Irrigation Controller, which helps in sensor-driven automated irrigation and fertiliser distribution processes.

Sensorised fertigation
Fertilisers and chemicals like pesticides and weedicides are essential components for productive farming. Like water, these too need to be applied at an optimally accurate amount—under-use will not deliver their purpose, while over-use might harm the lands.
Sensors come into play for automating this process as well. Different sensors specific to different chemicals measure the amount of the corresponding chemicals present in the soil. In addition, sensors measuring different correlated parameters like pH levels and chemical composition of soil are used for enhancing measurement accuracy. Depending on all readings, a microprocessor unit runs fertiliser and chemical sprays till the desired amount is distributed.

Remote control and auto-scheduling
Innovations to auto-schedule farm equipment—be it machines or irrigation controllers—can greatly help farm owners. Satish points out, “Due to erratic agriculture power supply, a farmer needs to be present at the farm at odd times, including at midnight, to irrigate the farm.” It becomes even more difficult for those whose farm yards are at a distance from their residence. Water supply availability is also timebound. Therefore devices that can automate pumps, irrigation pipes or other machines can come in handy.

One of the latest products from Energy Bots, a smart irrigation controller, helps the user to turn the taps on or off through basic mobile services. Bhatt explains, “It is a GSM device with a pre-activated SIM card inside. Once installed at site, the user can simply give a missed call from the phone on this SIM card, and that will turn the device on. The same process can again turn it off. This can also be done through SMS. Moreover, through SMS, the farmer can also check the running status of the device. We are also working on a software platform using which pre-scheduling and data analytics can be availed.”

Another startup called Avanjilal Agri Automation Pvt Ltd provides a mobile application-driven irrigation system. Farm owners can schedule their systems through their smartphones based on time. Apart from that, sensors placed in the field enable timely irrigation as part of this solution.

Many such solutions by different vendors throughout India are bringing automation closer to the farms rapidly.

Solar setups
Solar panels combined with automated instruments is a big boon for the agri community. Solar pumps are becoming increasingly popular for the advantages these bring. Areas with limited-to-no electricity can ensure storage of water by running the pumps using trapped solar energy.

Solar pumps can bring great benefits (Credit: govinfo.me)

S.S. Pradhan, general manager – sales, Rotomag Motors and Controls, says, “India gets sunlight 305 days a year. So, running solar pumps throughout these days is simple. Sixty days are mostly rainy, while the rest are dry days. This can be easily managed with stored water.”

With water available throughout the year, irrigation and farming will remain consistent and the yield will keep coming. Moreover, solar pumps provide a big environmental relief compared to diesel pumps, which emit toxic gases and other pollutants.

Implementations in India
Smart farming has seen impressive adaptation in India with many success stories. Satish gives the example of Flybird’s recent installation where farm owner Chandu Gavit from Bokalzar village, Maharashtra, installed Siri Irrigation System. Gavit testifies, “Initially, there was the challenge of travelling to the farm during odd hours to get the pump started or irrigation lines running. Implementation of automated irrigation lines has solved these challenges.”

Not only have the daily challenges been addressed, automation has also cut down some major expenses for the owner. Gavit explains, “Labour cost for this kind of work is huge. Implementing these technologies has enabled us to cut that cost down to almost zero.” The biggest benefit came in the form of improved yield. “Crop production improved by up to 15 per cent, compared to what was being produced manually,” confirms Gavit.

Flybird’s irrigation controller installed at Gavit’s place (Credit: Satish K.S.)

Karnataka launched the biggest drip irrigation project at Ramthal region earlier this year. To address the inconsistent water availability, Netafim, an Israel-based agri-automation solution provider, took charge of the project. The project based on a 2150-km-long pipeline network has smart control systems inside a centrally controlled unit in the village, which the farm owners can operate as necessary. It will automate the water supply and also provide intel on water availability and water quality being drawn.

This project is poised to be a major benefactor for the native agri community. At a cost of INR 1300 per year, which is to be deposited by individual farmers, each of them are expected to receive a substantial amount of productivity improvement. Additionally, the region will see a lot of water being saved, which is otherwise wasted through sub-optimal application.

More such stories of successful implementations and operations can be found throughout the country.

Cost points
Technology and solutions being developed need to be cost-effective, keeping in mind the affordability factor for the agri community. So the manufacturers are cautious. For example, Energy Bot’s smart watering system is priced at about INR 4500. Their automated irrigation solution starts from INR 15,000, with variable price range based on the area of land to cover, number of sensors needed and scale of application.

For solar pumps, the cost may start from INR 50,000 per horse power capacity. Administrative bodies like Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) provide a 25 per cent subsidy on these pumps, while state governments provide an additional variable subsidy between 50 and 70 per cent. Putting these into the equation, farm owners will be required to pay about 10 to 25 per cent of the total cost.

The final word
Automation in the field can have a great positive impact, both financially as well as environmentally. Satish concludes, “These technologies can save water by 25 to 30 per cent, improve overall crop yield by 10 to 15 per cent, eliminate human errors, save electricity, reduce weeds and optimise agricultural inputs. All of this adds up to an improved livelihood for the agri community.”

India’s exhilaration towards automating agriculture shows a promising future. More adoption of technology can greatly improve India’s environmental and financial gains from its lands.

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