Drones For Agriculture: Benefits And Concerns

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Pre-programmed automated application of materials not only leads to a perfect nutrient balance for crops, it also significantly saves wastage of these elements.

Agricultural yield is directly proportional to the level of precision maintained in the materials used in farming, alongside quality of soil, climate and environmental conditions. India’s agri-community is still dependent on their manual skills and ages of experience to maintain this level of precision. This often proves to be challenging, given the limitations and inconsistency in manual processes, which affect the yield many times.

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Automation solution providers have taken this issue into account and have recommended robotic drones as the friend in need. But are our farmers ready for these?

The benefits

Agri-owners are well-aware of the problems that can crop up due to imbalances in various agricultural elements used. For instance, underuse of water leaves the crops dry, while its overuse can choke the crops, barring oxygen intake. Excessive pesticides can render the soil toxic. Underuse of fertilisers can lead to sub-optimal production rates. Drones are being designed to address these issues.

Pre-programmed automated application of materials leads to a perfect nutrient balance for crops. It also significantly saves wastage of these elements. Experts suggest that automation can save at least 20 per cent water wastage, and 15 per cent chemical wastage (weedicides, pesticides, etc).

Innovative drones are being designed to scan the health of soil from the sky. Crop-spraying drones use ultrasonic echoing or light detection and ranging (LIDAR) methods alongside field scans to position themselves at a proportionate distance from the field, and spray exactly the required amount of pesticides, weedicides and fertilisers.

On the other hand, irrigation drones use spectral or thermal sensors to recognise dry areas in farmlands and spray the accurate volume of water required.

Drones can also generate geo-referenced 3D maps and other results like vegetation index, elevation maps, plantation counts, crop scouting, plant health status and so on. This enables farm owners to plan seeding and harvesting schedules, pay attention to plant health, understand soil conditions and reduce use of scarce or harmful chemicals.

Latest drones are being designed to even carry out plantations. These are being equipped with technology to shoot pods containing seeds and nutrients into the soil, after the farm has been scanned. While this technology is under R&D at the moment, it brings the potential to save up to 85 per cent of plantation costs through reduced manual labour, plantation equipment investments, land analysis costs and more.

The plans

India is banking heavily on smart farming technologies, and using drones is definitely on the list. Maharashtra government recently announced its plans to push drone-based agriculture. The state has approached IISc Bangalore and some agricultural universities to help with developing and deploying drone technology.

The drone technology is targeted to cover a maximum scan distance of 20km in one hour, and provide insights to guide farmers with better sowing, harvesting and nutrient distribution to crops. It is planned to cover one taluk (an administrative division of a region) a day, among the 355 taluks across 36 districts in the state. The pilot launch is planned in October and November (rabi crop season), starting with Latur and Yavatmal districts.

This is not the first time the government has shown an interest in drones for farming. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), in association with other institutes, has been researching drone technologies since 2016, to produce indigenous solutions fit for Indian farmlands, as a part of SENSAGRI project.

Private players are also continuing with proof-of-concept (PoC) projects to show the practical benefits of drone-based farming. Cyient led a PoC of plant nutrient and health analysis on a 40,468sqm (10-acre) land in Mahabubnagar, Telengana, to help farmers optimise the use of fertilisers and irrigation. The PoC led to a 20 per cent improvement in crop yield in a matter of weeks. It has been under expansion across other districts in Telengana.

The limitations

Drones are still under development to ensure quality, durability and performance on the field. Hardware and software are being optimised to ensure data and operational accuracy. Since drones are a relatively new technology for agricultural applications, upfront costs are high right now, starting at around US$ 500 (more than ₹ 35,000), going up to US$ 25,000 (around ₹ 1.77 million). However, Indian technologists, along with aid from the government, are trying to bring down these costs substantially to make drones affordable for farmers, and the projections look promising.

Some companies provide rental business models to help farmers utilise the technology. For instance, Indian startup vDrone Agro provides technical assistance by deploying custom drones across farms as per requirement, scans the land and provides actionable data in all aspects, helping farm owners optimise their yield. It charges on per acre land basis, which can cost between ₹ 400 and ₹ 800 for each acre, variable as per needs.

Connectivity is also a challenge, as wireless or cellular networks in rural areas are still improving. Since drones require a strong wireless connectivity channel, administrations need to focus on rural areas.

Drones can be used for automated irrigation and chemicals distribution
Drones can be used for automated irrigation and chemicals distribution

India has set a number of stringent federal laws regarding unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) usage. Rules need to be fine-tuned to ensure easy operations in farms, while maintaining security and ethical usage. Users also have to be made aware of the regulations and their importance.

Finally, spreading awareness among the masses, especially in rural areas, is a major agenda for driving the adoption of such technologies.

Drones can be used for automated irrigation and chemicals distribution.


 

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