Drone in Agriculture

The frequency, at which we are coming across innovations in agriculture, and adoption of technology across the sector, has impressed me. It cannot be argued that the only way to move towards precision farming is through accedence of technology. Time and again, countries have proven the case for technology enabled systems to improve the quality of agriculture- where farmers move away from hit and trial methods, to more calculated systems and processes.

Through such adoption, comes a great opportunity to reduce costs of cultivation, by using more efficient systems and tools. One such I read about recently was the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Drones. The concept was also displayed at the recent Make in India week at Mumbai, and I personally look forward to its extensive application in agriculture in India. Drones are the recent addition to the toolkit of precision farming. Drones can provide farmers with an array of detailed views.

So how do these drones work? Drones fly over the fields, collecting detailed data which may be difficult to observe with a human eye. The drones geo-tag the images and wirelessly transmit data to computer; software builds geo-referenced high resolution images that helps farmer to analyse the crop status. Mathematical models are used to deliver the predictive information which helps farmer to take decision on resource management or dealing with insect and pest attack. The drones are equipped with different sensors that can capture Near Infrared, RGB images, multispectral and thermal images which give plant count, stress status, physiology of plant, plant health aspect and yield forecasting. They can even pinpoint the fields which may need fertiliser, more seed, moisture level or a specific weedicide/ insecticide, regardless of the type of crop. Further, the various geospatial and imagery data of the fields captured by these UAVs, helps for efficient use of farm inputs.

Farming will no longer be legwork: going plant-by-plant to check for weeds, pests, diseases, any sign of stress and inspecting the quality of yield inorder to adopt appropriate measures. Over time, this would result in reduced requirement of chemical fertilizers that also harm the environment. Each millimetre of the land is hence cultivated efficiently, yet assuring a more bountiful crop.

A huge potential is seen in the use of UAV and many have already started adopting it. The United Nations projects that, assuming a global population of 9.1 billion people in 2050, food production will need to rise by about 70 percent. Improving crop yields will be increasingly the key to feeding the world, and drones can help.

MIT Technology Review also shared a case study on adoption of UAVs by a wine farmer, and shared that there is also a future for drones and cost effective machines primarily due to tiny MEMS sensors, small GPS modules etc. As technology is adopted by more farmers, economics of scale will surely reduce the cost of production.

In India, one can understand that this technology is far from being adopted. However, progressive strides have been taken. A few pilot studies had been conducted in parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chennai to see how drones can be used to survey crops and help map crop diseases. There maybe a few constraints- such as small land holdings in India and the cost of technology, but it is up to us to decide whether we want to restrain ourselves or choose to be more technology friendly with an aim to achieve exponential economic growth.