The deadly Covid-19 has posed a great challenge to public health and pushed us all under a lockdown.

In this unusually difficult time, another group of troublemakers has gone rogue in the countryside, threatening crop health. It is the exotic desert locust, a polyphagous gregarious pest, which travels in swarms and has a substantial appetite.

Locusts cause significant damage by devouring leaves, fruits, seeds and growing points of plants, and even bring down trees with their weight. In India, desert locusts are typically spotted in the scheduled desert areas (SDA) of Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat from time to time during the kharif season. They were also reported for the first time during the rabi season last year.

However, 2020 seems to have imparted special powers to desert locusts, which have expanded their territory from SDA to productive agricultural lands in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab.

Even 2018-19 was not particularly sympathetic to Indian agriculture, as the invasive fall armyworm (FAW) landed in the country and struck maize production significantly. Knowledge about integrated pest management dissipated using digital media, and large-scale farmer education programmes, helped equip the farmers in the fight against FAW.

Need for innovative solutions

The blows from such adverse events, along with the shortage of labour for carrying out weeding and harvesting operations apart from other farm activities, demand innovative solutions for the agriculture sector. The pandemic that has caused significant loss of workdays and capital, too, has hit the agricultural sector hard. Thus, to control exotic pests, step up surveillance and overcome the challenges of farming amid the pandemic, the innovative technology of flying drones is now poised to support agriculture.

Multiple prospects await drone applications in Indian agriculture, which faces a burgeoning population, increasing the cost of agricultural inputs and the need to achieve sustainable development goals. Accordingly, the Centre aims to introduce drones, also termed as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), to agriculture, beginning with the present-day problem of desert locusts.

The development comes with the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (MoA&FW) rolling out an e-procurement tender to involve UAVs in aerial spraying of pesticides. It could be a revolutionary step for pesticide application in India, where many farmers lose their lives during the process. A practice already prevalent in countries like the US, Australia, Japan and China, the use of UAVs in agriculture propagates the ideas of targeted application and precision agriculture.

R&D at nascent stage

UAVs in precision agriculture are not only limited to pesticide application but also in remote sensing, pest surveillance, analysis of field and soil and estimating crop heights, among others. However, the research and development operations for UAVs are still at a nascent stage in India, even though 70 per cent of the rural population is engaged in agriculture.

Pesticide application using UAVs comes with its own set of requirements. These include the logistic issues related to drone and spraying units. While the cost measures for drones need adjustments, the varying weight of payload during spraying also needs to be accommodated for in designing such drones. Besides, the energy issues to support drone operations for 3-4 hours persist. Additionally, the aerial spraying of pesticides needs to be verified for the safety of flora and fauna in the surrounding environment using the appropriate toxicity studies.

Scientific studies are also required to define the suitable parameters for the flying operations in alignment with the varied environmental conditions of India. Even though the government has issued e-tenders for the inclusion of drones in aerial pesticide applications, a standard guideline for addressing the fundamental issues in UAV-based pesticide application remains amiss.

Standard guidelines needed

Now that the pests are evolving, expanding their host and geographical range, the availability of standard guidelines can help speed up controlling them with the highest efficacy. Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently underlined the importance of self-sufficiency in fighting the pandemic, standard guidelines for the operation of drones can help farmers become self-sufficient in utilising UAVs. The intelligent use of technology can help fight invasive pests such as FAW and desert locusts with mettle, prevent them from becoming endemic, and reduce the cost of production while maintaining high agricultural productivity.

Ironically, the draft standard guidelines for UAV-based pesticide application prepared by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) are pending approval by the MoA&FW for some time now. One major challenge to guideline approval is the ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ clause for each UAV flight through India’s digital sky platform. This clause proves cumbersome and impractical for the use of UAVs in agricultural operations, where multiple consecutive flights remain necessary for aerial pesticide application.

Joint effort

To overcome this obstacle, MoA&FW ought to work jointly with the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) for developing suitable provisions in the digital sky platform. A possible solution could be for MoA&FW to create a platform in ICAR to monitor and control drone application in agriculture in conjunction with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

Another challenge to UAV application in agriculture is the lack of initiative by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIB&RC) of MoA&FW to endorse the use of UAV in label and leaflet as an alternative spraying equipment for application of approved pesticides. The requisite change in label claim of pesticides by the CIB&RC and necessary exemption in civil aviation requirements for drones issued in December 2018 by the DGCA, are critical for the operationalisation of drones in agriculture.

Without the approval and notification of ‘Standard Guidelines for Operation of Drones for Pesticide Application’, the ambitious call by the Minister of Agriculture to deploy drones for sprays, and e-tendering by his ministry for the empanelment of agencies for providing the services of drones for locust control, which is a laudable initiative, would remain elusive.

(The writers are with the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi. Views are personal)