Smart Farming is the coming together of Human Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence, in order to find solutions to current day agricultural challenges.
In the picturesque Western Ghats, the first monsoon showers at the end of summer triggers an annual spraying ritual for Malanad farmers in Karnataka. Armed with 3hp motor and lengthy high-pressure hoses, plantation workers spray barrels of Bordeaux mixture to areca nut bunches and black pepper vines to protect the plants from various fungi attacks. It is a laborious exercise, as spray needs to reach areca bunches hanging at least 40 feet above ground. Pepper vines too can go above thirty feet and some older ones on mature supports can climb beyond fifty. Another round of spraying is undertaken as the monsoon draws to a close by September. At best, only a third of Bordeaux actually reaches its intended target. The rest gets wasted during this cumbersome operation.
Now imagine a sprayer drone with a 20L capacity deployed to perform this operation. An operator can cover hundreds of trees in a single day while saving on time, crop protection chemicals, labour and fuel. This is just a glimpse of precision and efficiency that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are bringing into agriculture. But these flying robots are not new. Yamaha’s remotely piloted helicopters have been spraying pesticides on Japanese paddy fields since 1991. For an advanced but aging society like Japan, these machines are increasingly becoming a necessity. Nearly one third of pest control on Japanese rice fields are now carried out by these remotely piloted helicopters.
The information technology revolution that began in the 80s is all set to fundamentally reform the way food is grown. With advancement in sensors and integration of sophisticated software, the future of agriculture will be more data driven. Field assessment, crop health supervision, soil moisture readings and nutrient monitoring could be some of the main areas where UAVs can be deployed. A recent report by PwC estimates the addressable market value of drones at over $32b in the agriculture sector.
While agriculture drone prices are steadily coming down, they are not yet in the affordable category. Yamaha’s sprayer helicopter costs about $150,000 and other fixed or multi-rotor agriculture drones cost anywhere between $5,000-25,000. For American farms with an average size of 434 acres, these new tools give a competitive edge: grow more with less. But given the Indian context of small land holdings and multiple crops, drones will not to be deployed here as enthusiastically as in other countries. Therein lies the rub. These technology advancements will soon be a handicap to our farmers vis-à-vis a developed country farmer growing the same crop – be it corn, pulse or cotton.
Only those farmers who are into high value commercial crops such as coffee and spices will be the early adopters as sourcing labour at a reasonable cost has become a major challenge in these plantations. For all others, the government has to step in and build an extensive drone-based crop and soil health surveillance programme for the benefits of these advancements to reach small and marginal farmers. The government has already said that it will be deploying drones to assess crop losses but it is hardly sufficient.
The government should use this opportunity to bring life back into its almost extinct extension services. By tying private sector drone operators with Krishi Vigyan Kendras in crop clusters, the government can share a wealth of data with individual farmers on standing crops on a real time basis. Which farmer wouldn’t need information on fast spreading pest attacks, or nitrogen shortage or moisture stress visible in his field? That is a worthy goal for the government to purse. Without these enabling technologies, we are putting millions of lives at risk as we continue to slide down the global productivity ranking.