Drawbacks and Benefits of using drones in agriculture – Industry view.
In May of this year, when Narendra Modi was kicking off a two-day drone festival, he said that one of his dreams is for every farm to have a drone. This is a very ambitious goal, but it also shows how important the Modi government thinks drones are in agriculture.
When Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented her budget for the fiscal year 2022–2023 earlier this year, she said that the government planned to use drone-based technologies in agriculture more. She also said that ‘Kisan drones’ will be used to look at crops.
Ordinary farmers cannot afford
There are both pros and cons to using drones in Indian farming. Modi’s plan to put a drone on every farm is a good one, but an average farmer can’t afford to buy one. ‘The price of a drone ranges from 10 lakh to 12 lakh. A normal farmer won’t be able to buy it. ‘However, drones can be made available through a farm-as-a-service platform,’ said Susheel Kumar, Country Head and Managing Director of Syngenta India.
The Indian branch of the Swiss company started a drone trip (called a ‘yatra’) last month from Mancher, which is near Pune in Maharashtra. The trip will go 10,000 km through 13 states.
Most likely, economies of scale can help the Prime Minister reach his goal. All experts in the field agree that drones help Indian agriculture make a huge leap forward.
In a recent study, BlueWeave Consulting, a strategic consulting and market research firm, predicted that the Indian agriculture drones market would grow by four times by 2028, with an annual growth rate of over 25% from 2022 to 2028.
Central government effort initiatives
A few companies, like the agtech start-up platform Unnati, have started offering drone services. The company wants to use drones to spray 20,000 acres of land by the end of 2022. Next year, they will be able to spray four times as much land.
The Indian government is doing what it can to make drones more popular. In August of this year, Narendra Singh Tomar, the Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, told Parliament that the government is helping people buy drones for demonstrations in different ways. 40% of the cost of a drone bought by a custom hiring centre (CHC) is paid for by the government.
The Centre is also giving farmers an emergency fund of 6,000 per hectare, which they can use to rent drones from CHCs.
But S Chandrasekaran, an agricultural trade analyst who tried drone farming in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, said that aerial spraying has been popular in Japan since 1986. ‘China gives subsidies to farmers who buy drones, and we need to think about this in light of India’s land ceiling,’ he said.
Gains over spraying by hand
If the above two projects are ways to deal with the high cost of drones, then using drones for farming, especially to spray pesticides, has other benefits. Spraying by hand is getting more expensive, so drone spraying is seen as a good alternative.
A farmer in Mancher said that it costs 500 per acre to spray by hand. ‘Spraying an acre will take at least four hours, and the costs will only go up,’ he said.
Srikanth Srinivasan, who is in charge of sales and marketing at General Aeronautics (GA), said that using drones to spray insecticide costs only that much. ‘A pesticide can be sprayed on one acre by a drone in four minutes,’ he said. On the other hand, Unnati says that its drones can cover an acre in less than eight minutes.
General Aeronautics, which is based in Bengaluru and wants to make 100 drones a month, has made 49 kg ‘Krishak’ drones. The drones have been used to test 45 crops on 10,000 acres in 14 states. It sells its drones to companies like Syngenta and Bayer CropScience on a business-to-business basis. General Aeronautics made a drone that Syngenta uses for spraying operations.
‘Our drones can cover six acres in 25 minutes on a single charge. ‘Our drones come with three batteries,’ Srinivasan said. S Chandrasekaran says that the price of batteries for drones could be a deal breaker.
‘There could be a lot of spray flights. With the number of chemicals that are there now, it is 12–15 flights. This is a big problem because it means the battery will be used more and less efficiently. This means that using a drone to spray is more expensive than spraying by hand,’ he said.
In the case of GA, Srinivasan said that each battery could last 600 cycles and that work is being done to make that number 6,000. But experts in the field agree that the life of batteries and how often they need to be replaced are currently problems.
Problems with spraying from the air
Using drones also saves 95% of the water that would have been used to spray pesticides or insecticides. ‘Mixing 150–200 ml of pesticide or insecticide with 8 litres of water is enough,’ said Srinivasan.
This is because new chemicals have come out that need less water to be diluted. This is especially true now that drones are being used.
Experts say that since India has small plots of land, it would be easy to keep an eye on drones spraying fertilisers, insecticides, or pesticides. But the fact that it is small could be a problem.
Spraying from the air has some problems. ‘It could make water bodies dirty, and it could also affect small water streams (called nalas). There could be victims who are animals. ‘From a safety and security point of view, we need the right height, speed, wind, and ground tactics,’ said Chandrasekaran.
Srinivasan said that this problem is covered by the standard operating procedure put out by the Centre. ‘Drones can spray in a safe way with the help of geo-fencing and GPS,’ he said.
Drones Transportation Problem
Experts, on the other hand, say that this is something that needs to be studied and tested in depth. Chandrasekaran said that making ‘ultra-low volume pesticides or fungicides’ that can be changed for each crop and disease could be one way to solve the problem.
‘It’s hard to move a drone by train because of how wide it is, even without fans. He said, ‘It has to be moved by bus or car.’
IoTechWorld Avigation Pvt Ltd made Agribot, which is said to be the country’s first approved agricultural drone and can be carried on a bicycle’s carrier. GA’s Srinivasan said, ‘It is better to ship drones by road in India because it will help them get there faster.’
Not every crop is covered
Using a drone is also helpful because the pesticide or fungicide can be sprayed on the leaves in the right amount. Srinivasan said, ‘When we spray, we use a special nozzle.’
Also, the leaves turn over because of the fans on the drones. “This is a big improvement over spraying by hand. Most insects and pests live beneath the leaves. These bugs and pests are exposed to the spray when the air pressure from the fans causes them to flip over.
But not all crops can be grown with drones. For instance, it can’t be used to spray grapes, whose leaves form a canopy that makes it hard to spray. Farmers in Maharashtra put the insecticide or pesticide spray on the bottom of a tractor and spray the chemicals from the top.
‘In other countries, robots have been made for this purpose, and they have worked well. We might be able to find them soon in India,’ said Syngenta’s Chief Information and Digital Officer, Feroz Sheikh.
Other good things
Another thing that is seen as good for India is that the Centre is doing everything it can to help the drone industry in India. ‘Drones cannot be brought in. But parts can be brought in. This will help the local economy and encourage more people to invest,’ said Sheikh.
“Drone technology is no longer a pipe dream”
‘Drone technology is no longer a pipe dream, said Amit Sinha, Co-Founder of Unnati. This is especially true for the agriculture industry.’ Also Read | Garuda Aerospace pledged to build 6 lakh drones & create 6 lakh jobs by 2025.
Akhilesh Jain, the co-founder of Agrotech India, says that Andhra Pradesh wants to launch 10,000 drones through its Rythu Bharosa Kendra in stages. Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu are also working with manufacturers, farmer groups, and state agriculture universities to get drones out this year.
Chandrasekaran said that drones in agriculture could be like Ola or Uber cab services if some of the ‘problematic issues are fixed. ‘Young people who know how to fly drones could help farmers with apps from the district headquarters,’ he said.