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Drones for Sustainable Agriculture

12 Apr 2019

'Drones' is the flashy new word which has caught everyone's notice and has urged government to bring about new reforms in its policies and motivated a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and hobbyists chasing this new industry entrant.

MUMBAI, 12 April 2019: 'Drones' is the flashy new word which has caught everyone's notice and has urged government to bring about new reforms in its policies and motivated a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and hobbyists chasing this new industry entrant.

So are the drones anything beyond toys? The answer is a definite YES. From saving millions of dollars for industries such as mining and infrastructure, to saving lives during emergencies and improving livelihoods through agriculture, the drones have been doing it all.

The drones for social good and humanitarian aid has been a little less explored, but is the most effective use of drones for transforming societies. WeRobotics with Flying Labs – a sustainable and replicable network of localized knowledge and action hubs work with partners in governments, universities, communities and other non-profits for advocating the use of drones in social sector. Presently in about 22 countries (and counting), these Flying Labs have become a locus of activities such as multi-stakeholder consultative meetings, advocacy, knowledge sharing through workshops and training and bringing together global partners for supporting projects in a South-to-South cooperation model. The major activities undertaken are in disaster management, agriculture, nature conservation and healthcare.

India Flying Labs, formed in December 2018 has been working with grass-root entrepreneurs in tribal villages of Dahanu-Palghar belt in Maharashtra, supported by Global Futures Network, a US-based non-profit organisation working in India. Young leaders from the villages are being groomed for applying advanced and sustainable technologies for their farmlands with an aim to make them self-dependent and find work opportunities in their own villages.

Through a series of 'Tribal Youth Leaders Meetings' led by Dr. Nehaal Mayur, the youth were able to determine what will be the best model that will work for them. They have decided to form a 'collective' that will enable them to as a group to work for their villages through shared resources. So far, they have learnt about crop rotations, aquaponics and hydroponics, fish farming, bio-waste management, organic farming, bio-based plant remedies and plastic waste management. They have already implemented innovations in rain-water harvesting that has refilled dead borewells in the region and introduced accurate measuring of yield using certified and calibrated weighing scales that empowers the farmers to question malpractices at the marketplace.

This group will now be groomed to use drone-based technologies for the farms and orchards. The high-resolution multi-spectral images from drones when coupled with artificial intelligence and machine-learning helps decode plant health, soil status and predict crop yield. The fact that each tiny plant can be located separately and analyzed for its health condition to guide directed efforts towards helping it – 'precision agriculture' can help in identifying stressed plants and introduce timely remedial action before the disease spreads to other crops.

This data, when combined with satellite-based remote sensing data and soil-based sensor data is used for deriving actionable insights to take timely action to prevent losses from crop disease, over or under irrigation and reduce the impact of climate change and unpredictable seasonal variations. We are hoping this would greatly help reduce the burden on the small-hold farmers and improve their income from the crops and derive an optimum yield in the given space.

It is extremely expensive to hire an urban drone team to conduct a survey for a small farm-land in a remote location. What is definitely more sustainable and economically viable is to empower these local youth with knowledge on using drones and interpreting data and providing them the technologies through social grants or a collective investment from social entrepreneurs. The youth from the community are definitely more sensitive to the local needs and empathetic to the situation in the community, and are the best people to fulfill their own needs. They shall serve their villages, helping the farmers at a price fixed by the collective – which obviously includes small-hold farmers. The reduced losses enable for this service to be paid for itself, although the collective can decide to do it for free as a mutual decision taken in interest for a particular farmer who cannot really pay, but deserves a timely help and can in turn by compensated by the 'social fund' saved as a percentage from the earnings.

This group can receive backend mentoring and support in analyzing the data, reviewing of reports, quality control, program review and periodic training to upgrade their knowledge and skills by India Flying Labs and their network of technology and knowledge partners – in universities, research organisations and also the international partners who have successfully implemented drones for agriculture in similar settings in other countries – such as Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Fiji and Dominican Republic.

India Flying Labs would eventually aim to replicate this model in other regions in the country, for example through their next association with researchers and non-profits in the Bundelkhand region of Northern India and tea plantations in North-East India.

India Flying Labs shall also bring in automations through farm roboticsfor labor-intensive practices such as tilling, sowing, weeding, fertilizing, spraying of plant remedies, irrigating and harvesting. This would also help the small-hold farmers, where generally the ageing farmer can do little on his farm as youth have either left villages for earning opportunities in the cities or do not find farming attractive enough to pursue as a profession.

Idea is to make the most of the technologies available in the country and throughout the world, bring them to the communities that need them the most.

To enable the discussions among the key-stakeholders, India Flying Labs is hosting an intensive workshop on 'Co-creating Sustainable Futures through Drones and AI' in New Delhi on May 16-17 2019 and invites social entrepreneurs, researchers and representatives from key government departments to participate in an immersive discussion and idea sharing to identify needs, devise effective solutions and strategies and find cooperative opportunities in sustainable agriculture, nature conservation, disaster management, healthcare, sustainable development and youth empowerment through Drones and AI.

Written by Dr. Ruchi Saxena,  Director – India Flying Labs/ Caerobotics Consultancy

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