How is DRONE Going to Impact Indian Agriculture?
Authors: Anirban Mukherjee, Debasish Chakraborty, Aniruddha Maity, Mrinmoy Ray, Kumari Shubha

Days are coming when milk and bread will be delivered at the door in morning by DRONEs. With the advancement in technology, there has been unbound improvement in the hardware/machine designing, software development along with analysis of big data which have recently ushered a plethora of new applications in and around us. UAV i.e. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or DRONE i.e. Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment, is one such. Though it was invented and mainly used for hazardous military operations including regular surveillance, now a days it is rapidly finding its applications cutting across several sectors from scientific research, civil monitoring to different commercial, recreational and even up to agricultural decision making processes. Off late the drones are increasingly used for different civilian purposes and it is projected to be one of the most promising technologies in the next decade or two. Aviation and aerospace industry research firm Teal 2 group expects global spending on unmanned aircraft to nearly double, from $5.2 billion in 2013 to $11.6 billion a year by 2023 (1).

Agriculture, being one of the most dynamic systems on the earth surface demands continuous monitoring for precise and appropriate decision making at proper time for improving the productivity with high resource use efficiency. Broadly drones have managed to show case its immense possibilities for applications in agriculture from its monitoring capabilities over spatially heterogeneous fields, on difficult terrains to its scientific data intensive indices for appropriate knowledge which can be crucial for decision making in field scale. Considering all these, Grace Market Data predicts the global agricultural drones or UAVs market to grow phenomenally at 37.1% per annum by unit shipment, and 28.9% yearly on average by annual sales revenue generated from agricultural UAV hardware, drone software and servicing section over the next decade (2016-2025) (2). The agriculture drones market is at its growth phase; it is expected to reach USD 4,209.2 million by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 30.19% (3).

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), usually recognised as DRONE, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. A DRONE is a powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift. It can fly autonomously by onboard computers or be piloted remotely by a human operator, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS); which include a UAV, a ground-based controller, and a system of communications between the two. UAVs normally fall into one of six functional categories (even though multi-role airframe platforms are becoming more prevalent): 1) Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile; 2) Reconnaissance – providing battle field intelligence; 3) Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions ; 4) Logistics – delivering cargo; 5) Research and development – improve UAV technologies; and 6) Civil and commercial UAVs – agriculture, aerial photography, data collection. Japanese farmers have been using Yamaha's R-50 and RMAX unmanned helicopters to dust their crops since 1987. Some farming initiatives in the U.S. use UAVs for crop spraying, as they are often cheaper than a full-sized helicopter. UAV are also now becoming an invaluable tool by farmers in other aspect of farming, such as monitoring livestock, crops and water levels. NDVI images, generated with a near-IR sensor, can provide detailed information on crop health, improving yield and reducing input cost. Sophisticated UAV have also been used to create 3D images of the landscape to plan for future expansions and upgrading.

Applications

Resource mapping: One of the foremost applications of the drone in agriculture is for mapping of the resources and crops over a specific area. Field scale mapping of crops and an assessment of its health can be of paramount importance for appropriate decision making. It furtherhelps to look at the condition and health of crops in different soil types and management zones to delineate crop health and yield potential; this propels the growth of the agriculture drones market for field mapping application. Field mapping application captured the largest share of the agriculture drones market in 2015 and is expected to exhibit the same trend till 2022 (3).

Reaching the unreached: Drones can collect information from the regions/areas which are otherwise difficult to access manually, such as difficult terrain, water logged area etc. It is also proved to be much effective while collecting information in a top down view from the tall orchard crops over a large area for timely monitoring and early detection of any infection. Many a times it can also be used for target or location specific spraying of chemicals for crop management or its geo-coded information can guide tractor based sprayer for effective point based spraying, reducing the pesticide footprint of the field.

Real-time imaging: Agricultural system is too dynamic in both temporal and spatial domains. Hence, it’s monitoring for appropriate management demands capabilities for high temporal resolution at that concerned spatial domain. Drones are able enough to capture the real-time ground truth at a spatial resolution of few centimetres, which is not possible in aircraft based monitoring and even satellite imagery. While presence of cloud makes the satellite and aircraft imagery amenable for rejection, drones are competent to capture quality images under such circumstances due to its operations at low altitude orbital.

Monitoring and specific applications: As drone can fly and capture large variability in the field scale, it can be used for several real field applications with the specific sensors mounted on them. Different remote sensing based sensors are now a days used for understanding the crop spectral signature which can be used for derivation of scientific indices like Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) or several other crop health indices. Theses indices provide crucial information about the intra field variation in the crop health which may be due to abiotic (water, heat, nutrients etc.) or biotic stresses (pest-diseases etc.). Proper analysis of the data can be helpful for precision farming. Different chemical detection sensors if used in the drone it can be helpful for mapping the emission of mal odour from the cattle farms or to detect presence of ethylene for fruit ripeness, etc. (4)

Geo-fencing : Drones can also be used as Geo-fencing, a virtual boundary or region surrounding any geographical region, for security purpose. Now a day lot of crops get damaged by the attack of wild animals such as elephants, nilgai, mountain bull, wild boars and birds etc. Geo-fencing can prove to be useful to fend off these animals attacks by alerting the owner as it sends a text whenever there is an invader in a Geo-fenced region.

Crop insurance: Drone derived aerial imagery can be used to quickly classify surveyed areas into cultivated and non-cultivated land, and to assess how much damage has been caused by natural disasters. Crop insurers and insurance policy holders also benefit from on demand area specific drone imagerywhich can be made readily-available and easily repeatable. In India, insurers are planning to use UAVs to conduct assessment of crop losses after natural disasters, allowing them to more accurately and quickly calculate pay-outs. Drone data might also be useful for the early detection and prediction of pest infestations, data that insurance companies could share with farmers. Finally, drone data can be used to detect insurance fraud, preventing fraudsters from insuring the same piece of land multiple times, or claiming damage where there is none. Apart for these drone shall help in reducing the time of claim settlement as it can provide real time information about crop losses which earlier used to take several months by field observers.

Challenges ahead

Like any potential technology, Drone has certain challenges too in both science-technology front and also operational-administrative front.The hardware system of the drone still needs improvement for stable flight under different weather conditions, this forms the basis for capturing good quality images of the ground. Most drones which are at work in agriculture can carry a light weight sensor (up to 2 kg), it needs to be improved for carrying more sophisticated sensors which are quite heavier. Drone collects raw data which need software for proper pre-processing, sophisticated algorithm for analysis of these data into comprehensible information and heavy computational systems for doing all these. Development of appropriate and easy to operate software solutions remains the key for application at field scale. In India, where the farmers are mostly marginal and the land holdings are fragmented, spread of drone application may be hindered by its techno-economic feasibility. More over drone cannot be operated publicly without prior permission of Govt. till now due to safety issues.

Way forward

Question may arise shall DRONE be useful for Indian farmers? How it will be feasible for them? Indian Council of Agricultural Research has already started several application based projects on DRONE and its application. Few techno start-ups are entering in drone based services in India. Realising the potential several others may come in future in the area of agriculture too. Custom hiring of DRONE services for precision farming may be the common trend for large farms and orchards in near future, but how far it will be successful for small and marginal farmers is still a function of input costs and market prices.

The technology of DRONE involves a hi-tech convergence of many fields of science. Advancements in those fields like, robotics, automation, miniaturization, material science, spectral and thermal imaging will further fillip drone-enabled solutions not in agriculture. In addition, drone-based-analytics can also offer useful insights to the government for policy decisions as well. Use of sequential data in forecasting crop yields could help farmers in financial planning and for the government to announce relief packages or subsidies pre-emptively. This becomes especially critical in countries like India, where crop failures are common, unpredictable and hard to handle due to sheer scale. India is witnessing a situation where multiple states regulate UAV activity through a patchwork of rules. To avoid this, the central government must immediately review possible aspects of drone activity that invite inconsistent rule-making and stipulate a consistent policy in line with the interests of innovators. Proper national laws for flying drones should be enacted with its norms spelled out clearly, so that it can be used for civil application purposes and its benefits can be spread across the sectors. Over all, drone technology has brought a remarkable breakthrough and new opportunities but its actual application in the field scale still needs to meet many scientific challenges

References:

1. www.tealgroup.com, Missile and UAV Market Forecasts, accessed August 2014, http://tealgroup.com/index.php/about-teal-group-corporation/media/tag/UAVs
2. https://www.wiseguyreports.com/reports/643524-global-agricultural-drones-market-and-by-region
3. Report buyer 2016. Agriculture Drones Market by Type , Application , Component and Geography - Global Forecast to 2022 https://www.reportbuyer.com/product/3903671/
4. Pobkrut, T., Eamsa-ard, T., Kerdcharoen, T. Sensor Drone for Aerial Odor Mapping for
Agriculture and Security Services. Conference Paper - June 2016 DOI: 10.1109/ECTICon.2016.7561340


About Author / Additional Info:
I am currently working as Scientist at Indian Council of Agricultural Research- (ICAR-NBPGR, New Delhi)