Drones can play a powerful role in modern agriculture by adding cost-saving precision to the aerial distribution of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. Rather than plant or spray an entire field, sensor-equipped drones can identify the areas most in need of support and dispense farm inputs accordingly. And compared to difficult-to-recruit farm workers and gas powered road vehicles and prop planes, drones can conduct these operations quickly and more sustainably, often within just minutes, compared to hours or even days.
But despite these advantages, drones in agriculture-dependent countries are only infrequently acquired and deployed by farmers in need. This is especially true in major farm producing countries like India that are relative newcomers to the drone industry. A May 2023 study conducted among farmers in India attempted to identify the main issues standing in the way of more widespread drone use in the country’s farm sector The barriers ranged widely, and included a combination of technical, attitudinal, behavioral, regulatory, social and financial factors. Taken together these factors are limiting India’s ability to exploit the potential of drones to maximize farm yields and shore up impoverished subsistence farmers, while increasing food exports to accumulate badly-needed foreign exchange earnings to bolster the nation’s sagging economy.
For example, many farmers surveyed in the study had little awareness of the capabilities of agricultural drones and how they might differ from what they knew about drones generally. Some wondered whether drones would be available to perform more than one function – for example, pesticide spraying as well as aerial mapping – and if so, the costs involved. Smaller and relatively inexpensive drones could easily map a field but drones with spectral cameras to detect crop stress and equipped with precision spray capabilities would be heavier, and far more expensive, they suspected. And given their meager incomes, they wondered how they could possibly afford the drones that might do the most good.
A related issue was the drone’s power capacity. Those with larger fields were especially concerned that a drone could not complete its missions on a single charge, and indeed, might need multiple charges, compromising the operation’s efficiency. Major concerns were also expressed over drone piloting and maintenance, and attendant service costs. Farmers that could afford to purchase a drone would need training to fly it, and little training was currently available; alternatively, farmers could contract out their drone support. But given skilled worker shortages, contracting would be expensive and would also reduce their control, a concern during harvest season when timing and drone availability would be essential.
Cognizant of these barriers, the Indian government and the private sector have already pushed for the establishment of drone “awareness” camps in rural areas and for workshops and training sessions for pilots and farmers. But these efforts are still in their infancy. Some regional technical training centers have also added drones to their curriculum but students are still in training. There are less well-qualified freelance drone pilots and technicians available for hire but the quality of their skills varies widely. For those that do acquire work, their incomes far exceed what most rural workers in a wide range of professions currently earn.
In its conclusion, the study suggests the need for monetary incentives to farmers to purchase and deploy drones as well as special tax benefits to drone companies, especially those from outside India seeking to form partnerships and joint ventures with Indian start-ups now eager to enter the burgeoning drone market.
Indigenous firms also need stronger encouragement. As the study notes, dependence on foreign drone firms is more expedient than strategic. New investments are needed in R&D to support an indigenous drone industry that employs professionally trained workers and is closely adapted to India’s needs in key commercial niches, including agriculture. Foreign partnerships can help in the short term, but preserving Indian economic “sovereignty” and maintaining the nation’s technological competitiveness vis-a-vis China and the West is paramount.
Barriers to the adoption of new technologies in India have long been a problem, especially in rural India, the country’s breadbasket. Drones are only the latest example. As the world’s most populous nation, and with its largest expanse of arable land (165,000 hectares, surpassing even China), India could one day become a leading drone “hub.” But it will take an all-out national effort in training, education and investment to ensure that the country fulfills its vast untapped potential.