Drones and Indian farming: A case study

09:03 AM | September 18, 2020 | Akashpratim Mukhopadhyay

The use of drones in Indian agriculture has been an issue rife with debate, and the past decade has seen an equal measure of views emanating from endorsing and censuring camps. The matter, contentious as it is, has been subject to a wide spectrum of opinions from diverse stakeholders such as governments, farming communities, and environmentalists.

To study the direction of the deliberations in light of regulatory frameworks in India, agrochemical industry association CropLife India, and industry body the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) have recently partnered on a discussion paper entitled “Drone Usage for Agrochemical Spraying.” The paper urges the Indian government to develop a regulatory framework for the deployment of drones in agrochemical spraying.

While India has allowed the use of drones for military applications more than two decades ago—in 1999—its use for civilian purposes has mostly straddled a grey area between poorly defined regulations or a complete lack of them. In 2014, the government imposed an embargo on the use of drones for civilian purposes, and in 2018, the Ministry of Civil Aviation published a regulatory policy pertaining to their use. 

Conditional approach and calls for relaxation 

The country’s farming sector has perennially braved problems such as fragmented land holdings, inadequate market connectivity, spiraling labor costs, below average yields for many crops, and a very low percolation of technological advancements when compared with their counterparts in the US, Europe, China, Brazil, and Argentina. These, the CropLife–FICCI paper suggests, can be corrected to an extent through the application of technological solutions. It says that farmland use of drones has been gaining traction the world over, and Asian countries such as China and Japan are leading the way with comprehensive guidelines. In fact, farmers in several countries stand to gain from positive regulatory approaches concerning the use of drones, as agriculture in these nations stand at a crossroads between the adoption of vanguard practices and keeping up with traditional farming methods.

Discussions in the Indian context have mostly ended at an impasse, and as such, the country’s farm sector has not been able to harness the potential of drone spraying. India suffered an unprecedented desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) infestation this year from April until the onset of monsoon in July. This was largely regarded as a wake up call to renew focus on the issue, and the government has subsequently had to conditionally allow the deployment of drones to tackle the onslaught. While the aerial application of agrochemicals through drones or other means is not legal in India, the country claims to be the first to have used the system for locust management. At the time, CropLife India issued an advisory to affected farmers, underlining steps to minimize damage to their crops.

The paper states that allowing drone-based technology would be a relevant addition to India’s advancement in drip irrigation techniques and mechanized farming practices. Citing the government’s exceptional use permission during the locust season, it reports that the idea has received positive responses from many states, who have since issued e-tenders for the inclusion of drones in aerial spraying functions. Calling on the government to consider the technology and its advantages, CropLife and FICCI outline preliminary action plans that should be considered for its effective deployment. These include suggestions regarding the training of operators in safe practices, and the use of personal protective equipment to mitigate any concerns about the exposure of farm workers to crop protection products. Furthermore, it highlights factors such as low water consumption and enlarged field capacity of drone-managed spraying, besides creating an entirely new occupational sector involving skilled and certified spraying professionals.

India vis-à-vis others

Compared with India, countries such as the US and those in the EU present large-scale drone use cases governed by robust statutory underpinnings. Similarly, many Latin American nations have long been using drones for small-scale commercial operations, with Brazil recently inviting public comments on a proposed regulation. In fact, the proliferation of digital farming has been rather widespread in the country, with an official study finding the use of digital agriculture platforms by eight out of ten Brazilian farmers. India, on the other hand, is yet to firm up a regulatory framework governing the agricultural use of drones.

India has taken the first of many steps towards ratifying drone-based farming, with two government agencies, the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine & Storage, Faridabad, and the Ministry of Civil Aviation, moving separate applications in recent months for adopting the technology. While the Directorate has come up with standard operating procedures (SOPs) on aerial spraying to curb the spread of desert locusts, the Aviation Ministry has issued a draft notification on a wider framework, namely “The Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2020.” The CropLife–FICCI paper highlights media reports about broad specifications issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, seeking to allow night-time drone flights for fighting locusts.

The Japanese example

Discussing these model frameworks, the paper says that regulations should have strong scientific backing and cites Japan’s revised guidance document about drone application from 2019 as a “suitable point of reference."

The paper calls for Indian regulations to be modeled after Japan, which has one of the longest histories of spraying agrochemicals using remote-controlled helicopters. The nation also holds a veritable wealth of field data generated over more than three decades. Japanese agrochemical companies have been investing in firms developing drone technology, with Nileworks (Tokyo) alone raising several million US dollars in funding over the past few years. The capabilities of the Japanese model have been widely endorsed, given its highly matured farming sector and the complex workloads managed by drones.

Think tank thoughts

Urging the government to frame policies while taking into cognizance national and global laws governing civil aviation, CropLife and FICCI propose several regulations, including the approval of vehicle needs, licensing and certification of pilots, and the registration of agrochemical products sought to be sprayed. 

A Goldman Sachs report that they refer to projects the agriculture sector emerging as the second- largest user of drones by 2021. Therefore, the paper suggests that India should cash in on the trend and set foot into a new era of national technological farming. In fact, figures presented suggest prices as low as Rs 100–Rs 150 ($1.36–2 at the current rate) for drone spraying per hectare (ha) of rice, wheat, and maize in some Asian countries, while the figures rise to Rs 250–Rs 400 for orchards. With vast swathes of agricultural land, the economies of scale tilt heavily in favor of India, only otherwise hindered by its fractured land holdings. 

A number of Asian nations have developed extensive guidelines for the application of drone-based technologies in crop protection, with South Korea and Malaysia establishing robust frameworks. China, on the other hand, has formed a civil aviation law and put SOPs in place, while still others, such as Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, have their guidance documents under development. A study conducted by the UN FAO highlights that by 2017, China alone had 13,000 aircraft for such use, while some 30 million ha of farmland in the country was sprayed using drones by 2019.

The application of drones for civilian purposes is still at a nascent stage in India, and a joint paper by FICCI and UK-based Ernst &Young (EY) titled ‘Make in India for Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Awaiting its “Kitty Hawk” moment, states that the country can have a domestic drone industry worth approximately $421 million by 2021, with the farming sector becoming a leading user of the technology. This, the paper says, would be possible if the government took proactive steps to harness the power of drone technology for a variety of purposes.

Sector speak and ground reality

Most major players in India’s crop protection sector have been looking forward to a national policy covering the use of drones, suggesting that the time is ripe for India to have its own framework. BASF, for instance, believes that drones are the “way forward in agriculture” for the efficient use of agrochemicals. The company’s business director for South-East Asia, Rajendra Velagala, who is also the chairman of CropLife India, says that the association is attempting to develop a platform where stakeholders from the government, industry, and experts could exchange views on the subject. He says that a policy, while it may not be as broad as the one in China, could open avenues for aerial application in Indian agriculture. The company is working with its industry peers and the government to take the initiative forward, Velagala adds. 

At present, the civilian use of drones in India is highly controlled under a strict set of guidelines, with the government debuting a self-registration portal for drone operators on December 1st 2018. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s aviation watchdog, manages this portal, named Digital Sky, where an owner is required to register every drone under possession to receive individual ownership acknowledgement numbers (OANs) and drone acknowledgement numbers (DANs). In January 2019, the Ministry of Civil Aviation revealed its “Drone Ecosystem Policy Roadmap,” underlining its vision for commercial drones in the country, and as of 8 June, all drones operating within Indian airspace are required to be registered with the DGCA. The guidelines also lay down penal procedures to be followed in cases of operation without valid OAN and DAN documentation. Taking into account an exhaustive documentation process for registration, a rigid operational policy, and the often prohibitive initial costs of ownership, it can be assessed why the sector has failed to take off despite the prevailing tailwinds it enjoys in other jurisdictions.

Estimating the disruption

Though an updated policy is unlikely to be in the offing, countries such as India, with manual and labor-intensive farming practices, may find it difficult to make a meaningful transition to technological farming any time soon. The World Bank pegged employment share of India’s working population in agriculture at 42% in 2019, and it might be unrealistic to expect any substantial stride towards automated agricultural practices in the near future. With the World Bank numbers for perspective, a consequential number of farmhands may be staring at partial or complete loss of livelihood once automated machinery such as drones take over. UK-based accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published a global report in 2016 on the commercial applications of drone technology, where it estimated that the new solution held the potential to replace $127 billion in labor and services "in the near future." This also includes substantial proliferation of drone-based technologies in agriculture. Four years on, the assessment seems to have hit the mark across many countries with highly automated farming systems.

Is India prepared?

With India’s quarterly GDP numbers recording the steepest fall in decades and soaring unemployment as businesses rationalize costs, a working model for the commercial use of drones in agriculture, at least for the near term, appears to be a far cry. Rural demand in the country, however, has been exhibiting green shoots of recovery over the past month, but sectoral headwinds in the form of monsoon flooding in many states, locust infestation leading to crop damage, and feeble pricing of produce are likely to further delay any strategy to implement digital farming solutions in the country.