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Agriculture Drones: Enabling Precision Agriculture

Agriculture drones are used to enhance agricultural operations efficiency, crop yield, and in crop growth monitoring.
Agriculture Drones: Enabling Precision Agriculture
Agriculture Drones: Enabling Precision Agriculture (Credit: shutterstock)

Agriculture drones are used to achieve precision agriculture. The government has been pushing for their large-scale use in agriculture. In fact, it wants drones to be used as other agricultural equipment like manure spreaders, trolley pumps, sprayer pumps, etc.

In August last year, the ministry of civil aviation liberalised the drone use policy. It allows certain types of drones to fly without prior permission. This was followed by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare publishing the standard operating procedure (SOP) for the use of drones in spraying pesticides in agricultural, forestry and non-cropped areas. Then in January this year, the department amended its policy to include drone subsidy proposals, enabling Farmers Producers Organisations (FPOs) to receive a grant of up to 75% of the cost of an agriculture drone.

In the following month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually launched 100 Made in India agricultural drones, which carried out farm operations in simultaneous flights. He  termed the exercise as a ‘milestone’ for Indian agriculture and later tweeted: “This is a new chapter in the direction of modern agricultural facilities of the 21st century. I am confident that this beginning will not only prove to be a milestone in development of the drone sector but will also open the sky to unlimited possibilities.”

A study conducted by strategic consulting and market research firm, BlueWeave Consulting, suggests that the Indian agriculture drones market is to witness a projected CAGR of more than 25% during 2022 to 2028. 

Agriculture drones are used to enhance agricultural operations efficiency, crop yield, and in crop growth monitoring. Firstly, they are used in crop assessment which will help in early settlement of insurance claims. Secondly, they are deployed for digitisation of land records. The government pays for these services. Thirdly, in spraying, for which farmers have to pay. 

The government has been pushing for their large-scale use in agriculture; it wants drones to be used as other agricultural equipment like trolley pumps, provided government-issued SOPs are followed, and only those Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)- approved drones. Also, the pilot should be DGCA-certified and must not consume alcohol for eight hours prior to flying.

The significant role they play in farming has gained more attention as almost half of the Indian population depends on a farm-based income, but a majority of the agriculturists are small cultivators with low yields. Experts believe that drones could transform this by making farming efficient; precision farming technologies have been shown to boost yields by up to 5%. For instance, drones equipped with Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) imaging equipment can provide detailed colour information to determine plant health. 

Agricultural produce exporters could also deploy drones for quality control since automation can help control the level of pesticide being sprayed, thus reducing residue. This is a critical requirement for exports to developed markets.

“We are making farmers aware that by use of technology, what precision agriculture you can do and how it would improve spraying which results in less consumption of pesticides, fertilisers and water. In place of 200-litre water, it does with 10 litres only. When manually spraying takes hours, drones do it in minutes in the same size of the field. Drone applications in agriculture will be faster and more economical for farmers,” RG Agarwal, Chairman, Dhanuka Agritech informed Rural Marketing in an interview.

However, the costs involved are still high. An agriculture drone, typically operated using Internet-based smart technologies, undertaking from spraying to monitor crop health, can cost anywhere between ₹5 to 10 lakh. Additionally, the market for agricultural drones is fragmented and new entrants are discouraged by high capital requirements and the necessity for ongoing R&D spending. Companies such as Garuda Aerospace, Thanos India and General Aeronautics are some of the renowned names in the market. The government’s  recent move to ban the import of foreign drones, except those used for research and development, defence and security, hasn’t addressed the concern; the imported ones are 25% cheaper. But it has allowed import of drone components because India-made drones heavily rely on China for them. 

With the rising global need for food, there is ongoing pressure to boost agricultural productivity and crop health to achieve higher production. For India, being a major agricultural producer, the opportunity for the manufacturers is immense.

In January, 2022, the government offered a 100% subsidy up to March 2023 to Farm Machinery Training and Testing Institutes, ICAR Institutes, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, and State Agriculture Universities, to promote the use of drones for agricultural purposes and reduce the labour burden on farmers. The Union Budget 2022-23 announced a special push for farmer drones with the aim to create public-private partnerships for high-tech farm services.

For agencies that do not want to purchase drones but want to hire them for demonstrations, the government has provisioned a contingency expenditure of ₹6000 per hectare. Moreover, the hiring centres will also receive special funding to provide agricultural services through drones; 40% of the basic cost of drones.

Precision agriculture is a fast-growing trend in farm management globally, and India cannot afford to lag behind. It’s apparent that with the agriculture sector incorporating technological improvements into its operations, the growth for agriculture drones is expected to be driven by it. Experts predict that by 2050 the global population will touch 9 billion, and our agricultural consumption is also expected to rise by almost 70% at the same time. This means more efficiency in agriculture to ensure high yield in a sustainable manner. Another factor inducing adoption of the technology is the shortage of manpower in the sector. In this backdrop, drone technology such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and remote sensing capabilities will undoubtedly play a crucial role in transforming the sector.

Read more: Dhanuka Agritech bets big on drone applications in agriculture

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