Drones are now the Indian farmer’s latest best friend

Drones can help reduce time, money, improve yield and efficiency, but many more things need to be done in order to get the most out of the technology

Kuttanad in Kerala — a region that includes Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts. It is one of the very few areas in the world that agriculture is conducted at sea level. It has paddy fields 1.2 to 3 meters lower than sea-level. In 2016 the Kerala government selected drone maker Throttle Aerospace Systems (TAS) to analyze 25,4 acres of fields of rice in Kuttanad where the salinity of the water is very high.

The aim, as recalled by Nagendran Kandasamy, the founder and chief executive officer of TAS The goal was “to create a detailed field health report, along with a georeferenced map of the entire field, via our drones”. A variety of parameters — like altitude, temperature, wind and the area that was to be covered were input into the drone. After approximately four hours of flying drones created close-infrared (NIR) photographs that map the field based on condition of the crop – ranging from ‘unhealthy’ crop stressed crop to healthy crops and exposed soil’. “This [NIR] data allows one to precisely quantify the coverage, which is tough to accurately gauge with visible-range information,” Kandasamy adds. Kandasamy.

The field data and analysis provided by TAS aids farmers to estimate yields for their crops much faster, improve the use of plant inputs, comprehend the flow of water and its quantity and much more. “Manually covering the entire area particularly below sea level, will take a significant amount of time and effort which could not yield precise outcomes. With the information we’ve provided to farmers, they can concentrate on the part highlighted in red, that requires the greatest focus,” he explains.

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This is just one of the many cases that show how useful drones can be for agriculture. It is the government that’s acknowledging this. In Budget 2022, the Union Minister for Finance Nirmala Sitharaman stated “Use of ‘Kisan Drones’ will be promoted for crop assessment, digitisation of land records, spraying of insecticides and nutrients.”

In a press conference regarding Kisan Drones during May The the Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar declared that the government would offer 50 percent, or a maximum of five lakh as a subsidy for SC-ST, marginal and small women, farmers and women from Northeast states to purchase drones. For other states, financial assistance can be provided up to 40 percent , or up to four lakh rupees.

In addition to agriculture, the adoption of drones has witnessed huge growth, particularly due to the open drone policy Drone Rules 2021. According to an estimate from the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the drone industry in India will have the equivalent of 12,000 to 15,000 billion by 2026. That’s up compared to approximately 80 crore today. There are 220 drone companies in India The number growing up to 34.4 percent between August 2021 to February 2022.

The drone’s advantage

Amandeep Panwar as well as Rishabh Choudhary who founded BharatRohan realized that nearly every farmer is confronted with problems related to pests and diseases that affect their crops. “However these issues aren’t detected until they have reached the threshold of economic risk (ETL) and/or until evidence of damages to crops. Pesticides are applied only when the infestation reaches the economic injury threshold (EIL),” explains Panwar. Due to these problems the result is an average of 15-25 percent loss in yield each year.

Satyendra Babu 40 year old farmer from Bidare within Bidare in the Tumkur district within Karnataka is a farmer who grows mango, areca nut , and coconut. He has utilized TAS drones for the past few months. “One of the main challenges we faced was labor. Since I began using drones to spray pesticides I do not have to worryabout it,” the man says. The price of pesticides is very expensive. Drones have helped him reduce pesticide use has dropped dramatically. “My total costs have been cut by nearly 50. I pay around Rs . 2,500 for each spray the use of drones for spraying pesticides across my 10 acres.”

Agnishwar Jayaprakash, the founder and chief executive officer Garuda Aerospace, founder and CEO Garuda Aerospace, says, “For around 40 acres worth of land each acre has to be sprayed 8 times per year. Farmers pay 400 rupees per acre, or per spray. That means they spend more than 20 000 crore per year.”

Abhishek Burman Co-founder and CEO at General Aeronautics, explains the main issue: “When farmers manually manage diseases and pests, the effectiveness is only 10. Furthermore, every spray per acre requires around 200 litres which is way too much waste. Because the efficiency is low farmers over-spray, which can reduce the fertility of their soils.” Agrochemicals could cause health problems in a variety of ways.

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Because of all these issues the maximum residue limits (MRL)–the most potent pesticide that is legally accepted–has been affected. Burman states, “A large percent of the world’s cumin is sold through India. Cumin exports have dropped by 13 % in the year 2021 because of MRL standards all over the world. The majority of countries demand the use of pesticides and residue-free in cumin.” Based on FISS statistics, cumin exports dropped by 13 percent by the year 2021 and were 2.216 lakh tonnes, down from 2.548 lakh tonnes in the previous year. The use of drones can result in taking control of MRLs which is around 20 percent improvement in food production and 70 percent less pesticides and 97 percent water savings as well as 30x efficiency. In 10-15 minutes drones can cover an acres. This means that three to four hours of manual task can be accomplished within five minutes.

Various use cases

Kandasamy developed the idea for TAS in the year 2014, after he observed a person on Huntington Beach in California, fishing with drones. In 2016, following the time that TAS was involved in an initiative for the Kerala state-funded project the company began to work extensively in the field of agriculture. In this, it is not only working on behalf of drone companies, but also with customers like JK Insurance.

“Crop insurance is crucial. Insurance companies employ drones to check yields before paying payments to the farmers” says Kandasamy. Research institutes like The University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru which use TAS drones to assess the accuracy of data and analytics, and offer the service for free to farmers.

that work with farmers, leasing or leasing them, and provides farmers with tablets or smartphones to use the software. Garuda Aerospace has been connecting with farmers directly. A drone produced from an Indian manufacturer costs about Rs 4-5 lakh. It costs between Rs 2 and Rs 3 lakh for its production. The typical margin for industry is between 25 and 30 percent.

Jayaprakash saysthat “Farmers are never going to buy the drone; they will always use it as a service.” The company has booked the purchase of 275 drones, and has sold 270-280 of them. The drone service providers may comprise rural entrepreneurs and FPOs FPCs, collectives, or associations.

For the past two and a half years, Garuda participated in numerous pilot projects in collaboration with his colleagues from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state agricultural universities, deploying projects in more than the 320 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs). “These nodal organizations assist in providing feedback and suggestions on what farmers want. Through these initiatives, we realized that each crop and region requires a different approach. For example, Maharashtra has a fungus issue, and Tamil Nadu has a rodent issue.” Garuda makes a 24 percent profit on every drone sold, and 15 percent profit on every area of land that is sprayed.

BharatRohan offers two different models: One model where it collaborates direct with the farmers and the second that sells its products to customers from industries such as FMCG modern retail as well as exporters on both international and domestic markets. “For the first model we offer an end-to-end process of decision-support (DSS) to farmers. Drones fitted with cameras that are hyperspectral monitor the crop growth every couple of days and recommend measures when there are problems,” says Panwar. Farmers who work with BharatRohan have saved more than 3,600 per acre, and their yield has increased from 50kg up to 70 kilograms per an acre. This has led to an additional income of about 20000 per acres.

Similar to that, Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS) is using RGB Mapping to collect data that can aid in border detection for farms as well as developing pipes for irrigation networks. “We are also using multispectral mapping technology to learn more about the health of plants. The plants are able to reflect NIR more than other visible energy band and analyzing these wavelengths can reveal information about the health of plants,” adds Singh.

Contrary to other drone companies, Skylark Drones focuses on the software aspect. It collaborates with the seed company Mahyco to assist in estimating the yield of some of their plants. “Our software lets drones identify individual seeds in the most precise way. Each plant has an ID unique to it and it also provides diagnostics of the health of the plant,” says Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, cofounder and chief executive officer of Skylark Drones. Skylark Drones is also developing pilots that use as many sprays as is required for each plant. “With agriculture the need for a reliable distribution system is crucial. This was a significant issue for us, but having a partner such as Mahyco aids by providing the final-mile education and training” he says.

What is the most urgent need to be changed?

In the realm of regulation there has been a many positive changes to the drone industry following the Drone Rules 2021.

On the technology side, it’s having a tough time in the face of the price of lithium ion and polymer batteries. “The battery is only good with 500 cycles. A take-off and landing is a single cycle. A battery set costs between 25-30 lakhs and there are none in India and the majority of batteries are imported.”

Panwar who is a member of BharatRohan believes that there is the inaccessibility of drone makers in certain states “The government should identify drone companies in respective states and help local FPCs avail services and products through the subsidies, along with financing opportunities through the Agriculture investment Fund (AIF).”

A major obstacle for the drone industry is the absence of component makers in India Even now 30% of the component components come from overseas. Players such as Garuda Aerospace plan to launch component manufacturing through partnerships with big players like Wipro as well as HAL. “The government is hoping to make India the number one ecosystem for drones by 2030, but this can only happen with the right amount of technological innovation,” Burman says. Burman.

With a particular focus on the use of drones in the agricultural sector it is possible for more than 100,000 new jobs to be created over the next three years. “Currently there is a massive gap in drone pilots and competent people to manufacturing and design of drones. There is a huge gap between the demand and supply of people in this area,” says Singh of Aarav Unmanned Systems.

One major shift that drones brought is the giving of the younger generation the “dignity of labour”. Says Jayaprakash “Most younger farmers don’t want to be farmers. Drone-based technology gives them the label of a “technocrat” and make them feel more appreciated. I’m sure that over time the agricultural landscape will be transformed in the way we think of it.”

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