From nutrients to pesticides and crop surveys, drones are set to change the landscape of agriculture in the state. With an estimated 50 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) companies operating in the farming sector, Karnataka is on the brink of a technological revolution. Over 25% of India’s drone startups are located in the state.
The emerging technology has been embraced by farmers across the state. Ganesh Katte, an arecanut farmer from Shivamogga, for instance, hired a drone company to spray pesticides. “I was informed about targeted spraying to control arecanut leaf spot disease,” he says. To spray his 10-acre farm, Katte spent Rs 26,000.
Shivakumar H G, who heads a drone company, quantifies just how fast the demand for such services has increased in Karnataka. “In 2021, we sprayed about 2,600 acres of land with pesticides. After word spread, demand quadrupled in 2022 and we ended up spraying close to 10,500 acres of land,” he says.
As drones are highly customisable, they can be used in spraying nutrients and pesticides for both field and horticulture crops, explains Dr Anand B A, assistant professor at the Department of Farm Machineries and Power Engineering at Gandhi Krishi Vigyana Kendra, Bengaluru.
“Currently agricultural universities in the state have been authorised to determine the concentration of pesticides to be used for different crops,” says Dr Anand. In the past four months, drone trials have been under way for ragi, paddy, tur dal, plantation and horticulture crops in various agricultural institutes in Karnataka.
An official from the department of agriculture explains that regulating drones in agriculture is particularly important as the dispersal of pesticides in different wind speeds and climatic conditions needs to be studied.
“Once the research stage is done, we can start authorising subsidies for Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs),” the official says. The department is also in the process of checking the Directorate General of Civil Aviation drone licences and pilot certificates to register for farming purposes.
There is a push for the adoption of drones in farming as it reduces human exposure to harsh chemicals, explains Dr Anand. “In manual spraying, the farmer comes in direct contact with pesticides, leading to respiratory, heart diseases and even cancer,” he says. As of now, the demand for UAVs in agriculture is mostly confined to spraying pesticides.
Among other reasons, drones are gaining traction as the availability of agricultural labour is on the decline. Earanna Mrithyunjay Menshinkai, a farmer from Dharwad district, has used UAVs to spray a range of crops from horticulture to oilseeds. “Finding people to work in my fields is a task. Drones save me the trouble,” he says.
They can also serve as important tools to monitor plant health and reduce the drudgery involved in manual labour.
Leo Charles Peter, executive director of a drone company, explains that it would take one day to spray a one-acre land manually with agrochemicals. “A drone can do the same in 10 minutes. The agrochemicals are also more evenly spread due to the nature of the nozzle,” he says.
In the process, there is a 30% reduction in pesticide use. Water use, too, will see a reduction of at least 90% — from about 100 litres to 10 litres per acre with the help of drones, he says.
Another reason, the agriculture department official says, is that drones will drastically reduce the time spent on crop surveys which could help the government determine the amount of area under a particular crop.
Additionally, the technology could be used to determine the extent of crop damage to help the government determine and affix a value for compensation. Moisture levels and soil health can be assessed through UAVs.
Despite the advantages, the use of drones in agriculture also presents challenges with certification, regulation and awareness. The risks of aerial spraying of agrochemicals remain to be assessed. Since landholdings are small, pesticide drift is possible.
Farmers who employ the services may not be familiar with the risks involved. “The speed of the rotors would be at least 11,000 rpm. Any contact could cause grievous injuries or can even be fatal,” says Dr Anand.
Since the technology is still in a nascent stage, insurance for such accidents is also not available. “Agriculture-specific training, licensing and certification need to be implemented to prevent such mishaps,” he says.