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India is ready to reap the benefits of precision agriculture through Drones

India has one of the highest arable lands globally with over 155 million hectares (along with the US, China and Brazil) and is one of the key agricultural producers of the world. In 2019, the agricultural sector generated approximately INR 19 lakh crores (USD 265 Billion) business comprising 18% of India's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs more than half of India's population. However, there are structural challenges plaguing the sector including low productivity (~3 tonnes/ha), uneconomic landholding size (<2 acres), sub-optimal input use efficiency, high biotic losses, and a low level of mechanization.

For India to achieve its national aspiration of being a top agricultural producer of the world while simultaneously doubling farmer incomes in the process, there is an immediate need for the agricultural sector to adopt leading-edge digital and precision agriculture technologies to improve farm productivity and democratize access to market information for all farmers.

Drones is one such technology that has the potential to revolutionize the farming industry through need-based precise and focused application of crop inputs that will directly enhance the input use efficiency and farmer safety whilst simultaneously lowering the overall cost to farm.

Many agricultural countries such as China, Japan, the ASEAN, the USA and Brazil are making rapid strides in adopting drones for use in agriculture and have prioritised both regulatory and structural developments to accelerate the adoption of drones powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). For example, in China, drones are leading the agriculture revolution. According to XAG research "the farm yields in China have improved 17-20 per cent after the use of drones for crop management”. Its drone market is growing at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 13.8 per cent. Thus, over the farmlands of China, 42,000 drones are doing more than 1.2 million flights every day.

Drones & precision farming

Precision agriculture is a way for farmers to maximize the efficiency of water, fertilizer and pesticides to improve overall productivity, quality, and yield. Certain issues that are not apparent in a ground-level spot check can also become evident using drones.

There are several ways in which drones help farmers with agricultural challenges:

  • Soil and field planning: Drones can be used for soil and field analysis for irrigation, fertilisation and planting activities including checking nutrient levels, moisture concentrations, and erosion among others.
  • Crop monitoring: Drones can perform continuous and consistent crop surveillance that can trigger actions to mitigate the effect of various biotic and abiotic stresses on crops. The data generated through such surveillance can help site-specific agronomy to optimize the use of inputs and promote sustainable farming.
  • Crop protection from weeds, pests and diseases: Drones are capable of spraying precise amounts of insect, weed and disease control products in a way that can ensure correct dosage, minimise accidental exposure to applicators and improve the overall effectiveness of the products and therefore outcomes of growers.
  • Productivity: Drones can significantly alleviate labour pressure on agricultural operations like applying pesticides or fertilizers, while enhancing the crop coverage area per day. This will provide significant ease of farming for farmers, who can use the time saved to carry out other activities, while responding quickly to biotic challenges.
  • New service models: Adoption of drones for data collection and application of agricultural inputs is likely to trigger new service models in which crop input companies may join drone operators and other value chain stakeholders to offer crop protection/nutrition as a service for a fee to farmers.      

Opening employment avenues through drones

There is tremendous potential to generate employment in rural areas through training since operating drones is a specialized skillset. It is estimated that these new-age technologies will create 2.1 million jobs in rural areas.

Tackling existing challenges for effective adoption of drones

There are several challenges which need to be addressed for effective adoption.

  • Regulatory framework: The regulatory framework for monitoring drone operations is still under formulation. Faster framing of guidelines for permitting expansion of the approved label claims on the approved pesticides (that could be used for application through drones) will hasten adoption of drones for delivering pesticides in farmer fields.
  • Limited flight time and range: Along with benefits, there are some limitations to the use of drones for agricultural purposes. The flight of drones typically ranges from 20-60 minutes due to higher payloads. This results in limited field coverage per charge and increases the operating cost of the drone. Ongoing research into developing higher range batteries with the lowest weight must accelerate with government support to provide increased flexibility to drones used in agricultural activities.
  • Viable commercial model: Considering the initial cost of acquiring drones, ensuring connectivity, and the operational costs and factoring smaller farm holdings, a viable model supported by government incentives needs to be developed that would attract investment in the hardware and software infrastructure apart from training pilots, etc.

What is the way forward for Rural India?

Drones have great potential to transform Indian agriculture by helping farmers to manage their fields and resources in a better and more sustainable way. To encourage the use of drones in the agricultural sector, incentives need to be introduced for drone manufacturers to quickly ramp up operations, training centres and operational tie-ups with the agri-input industry in a way that keeps the cost of compliance down. Subsidies can also be provided directly to growers for buying drones and related services.

There is also a need to address the broader issue of product stewardship for drones, right from registration, acquisition, and operation, to make life safer and easier with adoption.

Though still in a nascent stage, with the right reforms, India is ready to reap the benefits offered drones to bring the next agricultural revolution.