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

A quite ambitious target, but it also points to the importance the Modi government has given to the role of drones in agriculture. 

Earlier this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, presenting her budget for 2022-23 fiscal, said the government planned to ramp up the use of drone-based technologies in agriculture. More importantly, she said “Kisan drones” will be used in assessing crops. 

High costs

Adopting drones in Indian agriculture has its own pros and cons. No doubt, Modi’s vision of a drone per farm is laudable but the cost of a drone is something an ordinary farmer cannot afford. “A drone costs anywhere between ₹10 lakh and ₹12 lakh. An ordinary farmer will not be able to 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 arm of the Swiss-based firm launched a drone yatra last month to cover 10,000 km across 13 States from Mancher near Pune in Maharashtra. 

Probably, economies of scale can help realise the Prime Minister’s dream. Experts in the sector are unanimous that drones help the Indian agriculture sector make a huge leap.

In a recent study strategic consulting and market research firm, BlueWeave Consulting, forecast the Indian agriculture drones market to witness a four-fold increase by 2028, with a projected compound annual growth rate of over 25 per cent during 2022-2028.  

Centre’s initiatives

A few firms such as Unnati, an agtech start-up platform, have launched drone services.  The firm plans to spray 20,000 acres of land by the end of 2022 and increase drones’ spray capacity by 4x next year. 

On its part, the Indian Government is trying its best to popularise the use of drones. Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament in August this year that the Centre is offering various financial assistance to purchase drones for demonstrations. Drone purchases by custom hiring centres (CHCs) are given 40 per cent assistance. 

The Centre is also providing ₹6,000 per hectare as a contingency fund to farmers to hire drones from CHCs. 

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

Gains over manual spraying

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

A farmer in Mancher said manual spraying costs ₹500 an acre. “It will take at least four hours to spray 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 using drones costs that much only. “A drone can spray the pesticide on one acre in four minutes,” he said.

Unnati, on the other hand, says its drones can cover an acre in under 8 minutes.

Bengaluru-based General Aeronautics, which plans to produce 100 drones a month, has come up with “Krishak” brand drones that weigh 49 kg. The drones have been tested on 10,000 acres in 14 States across 45 crops. It is providing its drones on a business-to-business to corporates such as Syngenta and Bayer CropScience. 

A drone manufactured by General Aeronautics, being deployed by Syngenta India at its demonstration plot at Mancher, near Pune, in Maharashtra.

Battery problems

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

According to S Chandrasekaran, the cost of batteries used in drones could be discouraging. “The number of flights for spray could be high. It is 12-15 flights with the current concentration of chemicals. This leads to the major problem of higher battery utilisation and subsequent drainage of its efficiency. This results in higher costs in drone application compared to manual spraying,” he said.

In the case of GA, Srinivasan said each battery could last 600 cycles and efforts are on to improve it to 6,000 cycles. But experts involved in the sector concede that battery life and replacement are currently a concern. 

Issues with aerial spraying

The other advantage of using drones is that it helps save 95 per cent of the water used for spraying pesticides or insecticides. “It is enough if 150-200 ml of pesticide or insecticide is mixed in 8 litres of water,” Srinivasan said. 

This is since different chemicals have now come up and they need less water for dilution, especially with the emergence of drones. 

Experts say since landholdings are small in India, it would be easy to monitor the functioning of drones, be it spraying fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides. But the small size could turn out to be problem.

There are some problems with aerial spraying. “It could contaminate water bodies and can affect small water streams ( nala type), too. Animals could become victims. Appropriate height, speed, wind and ground tactics are needed in view of safety and security,” said Chandrasekaran.

Srinivasan said the standard operating procedure issued by the Centre covers this issue. “It is possible to ensure safe spraying through geo-fencing and GPS for drones,” he said. 

Transportation 

However, experts say this is an issue 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 adjusted for each crop and disease.

“Transportation of drone by rail is difficult in view of the drone’s width, even without fans. It has to be transported by bus or car,” he said. 

Agribot, produced by IoTechWorld Avigation Pvt Ltd and claimed to be the country’s first approved agricultural drone, can reportedly be carried on a motorcycle.  

“It is better to transport drones by road in India since it will help reach the destination better,” said GA’s Srinivasan. 

Not all crops covered

Another advantage of using a drone is that the pesticide or fungicide can be sprayed on the leaves to the required extent. “We use a special nozzle for spraying,” said Srinivasan.

Also, the fans of the drones force the leaves to turn upside down. “This is very advantageous compared to manual spraying. Most of the pests and inspects reside below the leaves. When they turn upside down due to the air pressure of 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 on grapes whose leaves form a canopy making spraying difficult. Farmers in Maharashtra mount the insecticide or pesticide spray on a tractor and the chemicals are sprayed from the bottom. 

“Abroad, robots have been developed for such purposes and they have yielded good results . We could find them soon in India,” said Feroz Sheikh, Chief Information and Digital Officer, Syngenta.  

Other positive

The other factor that is seen as positive for India is that the Centre is going all out to promote the domestic drone industry. “Imports of drones are prohibited. But components can be imported. This will help the domestic industry and boost investment,” said Sheikh. 

“Drone technology is no longer a pipe dream, especially for the agriculture sector,” said Amit Sinha, Co-Founder of Unnati. 

According to Akhilesh Jain, Co-Founder, Agrotech India, Andhra Pradesh has plans to launch 10,000 drones in phases through its Rythu Bharosa Kendra. Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are also working with manufacturers, farmers’ organisations and state agriculture universities to roll out drones this year.  

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

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