Advantages, hurdles in using drones for agriculture

In May this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who launched a two-day drone festival, said it is one of his dreams to see a drone on every farm.

A fairly ambitious target, but it also highlights the importance the Modi government attaches to the role of drones in agriculture.

Earlier this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who presented her fiscal 2022-23 budget, said the government plans to ramp up the use of drone-based technologies in agriculture. More importantly, she said “Kisan drones” will be used in crop assessments.

High cost

Adopting drones in Indian agriculture has its own advantages and disadvantages. No doubt Modi’s vision of a drone-by-farm is commendable, but the cost of a drone is something that an ordinary farmer cannot afford. “A drone costs somewhere between 10 lakh and ₹12 lakh. An ordinary farmer cannot afford it. However, drones can be made available through a farm-as-a-service platform,” said Susheel Kumar, Country Head and Managing Director, Syngenta India.

The Indian branch of the Swiss-based company launched a drone yatra last month to cover 10,000 km across 13 states from Mancher near Pune in Maharashtra.

It is likely that economies of scale can help make the prime minister’s dream come true. Industry experts unanimously agree that drones are helping India’s agricultural sector take a huge leap.

In a recent survey, strategic consulting and market research firm, BlueWeave Consulting, predicted that the Indian agricultural drone market will quadruple by 2028, with a compound annual growth rate projected to exceed 25 percent in 2022-2028.

Initiatives of the center

A few companies such as Unnati, an agtech startup platform, have launched drone services. The company plans to spray 20,000 hectares of land by the end of 2022 and increase the spraying capacity of drones by 4x next year.

For its part, the Indian government is doing its best to popularize the use of drones. Agriculture and Farm Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament in August this year that the Center is providing various financial aids to purchase drones for demonstrations. Drone purchases through custom rental centers (CHCs) get 40 percent assistance.

The center is also providing ₹6,000 per hectare as an emergency fund to farmers to rent drones from CHCs.

But S Chandrasekaran, an agricultural trade analyst who experimented with drone farming in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, said aerial spraying has been in vogue in Japan since 1986. “China subsidizes farmers on the purchase of drones and we need to see this in the context of the land ceiling in India,” he said.

Advantages over manual spraying

If the above two initiatives are solutions to the high cost of drones, there are other benefits to using drones for agriculture, especially for spraying pesticides. With the cost of manual spraying rising, drone spraying is seen as an effective alternative.

A farmer in Mancher said manual spraying costs 500 per acre. “It takes at least four hours to water an acre and the costs are only going up,” he said.

Srikanth Srinivasan, head of sales and marketing, General Aeronautics (GA), said the cost of spraying insecticide with drones is only so high. “A drone can spray the pesticide on an acre in four minutes,” he said.

Unnati, on the other hand, says his drones can cover an acre in less than 8 minutes.

General Aeronautics of Bengaluru, which plans to produce 100 drones per month, has come up with “Krishak” branded drones that weigh 49 kg. The drones have been tested on 10,000 acres in 14 states in 45 crops. It supplies its drones business-to-business to companies such as Syngenta and Bayer CropScience.

A drone manufactured by General Aeronautics used by Syngenta for spraying operations

Battery problems

“Our drones can cover six hectares in 25 minutes on a single battery charge. We offer three batteries with our drones,” said Srinivasan.

According to S Chandrasekaran, the cost of batteries used in drones can be daunting. “The number of flights for spray can be high. It’s 12-15 flights with the current concentration of chemicals. This leads to the major problem of increased battery usage and subsequent decrease in its efficiency. This results in a higher cost of applying drones compared to manual spraying,” he said.

In the case of GA, Srinivasan said each battery could last 600 cycles and efforts are being made to improve it to 6000 cycles. But industry experts admit that battery life and replacement are currently a concern.

Problems with spraying from the air

The other benefit of using drones is that it helps to save 95 percent on the water used for spraying pesticides or insecticides. “It is sufficient if 150-200 ml of pesticide or insecticide is mixed in 8 liters of water,” said Srinivasan.

This is because several chemicals have now surfaced and they require less water for dilution, especially with the rise of drones.

Experts say that since land tenure in India is small, it would be easy to monitor the operation of drones, be it spraying fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides. But the small size can prove to be a problem.

There are some issues with aerial spraying. “It can contaminate water bodies and can affect small water streams ( nala kind), too. Animals can be victims. Appropriate height, speed, wind and ground tactics are needed for safety and security,” Chandrasekaran said.

Srinivasan said the standard procedure issued by the Center is addressing this issue. “It is possible to spray safely through geo-fencing and GPS for drones,” he said.

transport

However, experts say this is a problem that needs to be thoroughly studied and experimented with.

Chandrasekaran said one solution could be to produce “ultra-low volume pesticide or fungicide” that can be customized for any crop and disease.

“Transporting drones by rail is difficult given the width of the drone, even without fans. It has to be transported by bus or by car,” he said.

Produced by IoTechWorld Avigation Pvt Ltd and claimed to be the country’s first approved agricultural drone, Agribot can reportedly be carried in the rear rack of a bicycle.

“It is better to transport drones by road in India as it will reach the destination better,” said Srinivasan of GA.

Not all crops covered

Another advantage of using a drone is that the pesticide or fungicide can be sprayed onto the leaves at the desired rate. “We use a special nozzle to spray,” says Srinivasan.

Also, the drones’ fans force the leaves to turn upside down. “This is very advantageous compared to manual spraying. Most pests and inspections are under the leaves. When they turn upside down due to the air pressure from the fans, these pests and insects are exposed to the spray,” he said.

But drones cannot be used for all crops. For example, it cannot be used for spraying grapes whose leaves form a canopy that makes spraying difficult. Farmers in Maharashtra mount the insecticide or pesticide spray on a tractor and the chemicals are sprayed from below.

“Abroad robots have been developed for this and they have yielded good results. We should be able to find them in India soon,” said Feroz Sheikh, Chief Information and Digital Officer, Syngenta.

Other positive

The other factor that is considered positive for India is that the center is committed to promoting the domestic drone industry. “Importation of drones is prohibited. But components can be imported. This will help domestic industry and boost investment,” Sheikh said.

“Drone technology is no longer a pipe dream, especially for the agricultural sector,” said Amit Sinha, co-founder of Unnati.

According to Akhilesh Jain, co-founder of Agrotech India, Andhra Pradesh has plans to launch 10,000 drones in phases via the Rythu Bharosa Kendra. Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are also partnering with manufacturers, farmers’ organizations and state agricultural universities to roll out drones this year.

Chandrasekaran said that if some of the “problematic issues” are addressed, agricultural drones could become a model like Ola or Uber taxi services. “From the district headquarters, young trained drone pilots could serve farmers through apps,” he said.

published on

August 18, 2022

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