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Farmers employ AI-powered drones to get rid of insects and fight crop diseases

Farmers employ AI-powered drones to get rid of insects and fight crop diseases
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
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Institutes, farmers and agriculture enterprises in India are employing technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve yields on farms in the country.

Researchers at IIIT Naya Raipur, for instance, have partnered with the Indira Gandhi Agriculture University in Raipur to develop a drone-based crop health forecasting solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify insects and diseases that commonly afflict crops in India, and suggest quick and accurate remedies. 

Accoriding to the institute, its forecasting solution will help farmers deal with crop diseases in a timely manner. It will also curb overuse of pesticides, which is rampant due to the lack of accurate information about the extent of infection in crops.

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IIIT Naya Raipur’s forecasting solution uses drones on ground to monitor crops and capture live images if it detects any issues in them. The images are then sent from the drone in real time to the institute's servers, where an image classification model based on convolutional neural networks (CNN) is used to identify the disease and insects that are affecting it. CNNs are AI algorithms commonly used for image and video recognition. They can process an image, assign importance to its various attributes, and differentiate one image from another.

“After the footage is captured and sent to our server, it is analysed and within seconds farmers will be informed of the issues with the crop on the Agriheal app, along with recommendations on how much pesticide to spray and in which part of the field. This will reduce overuse of pesticides among farmers,” said Shrivishal Tripathi, assistant professor, electronics and communication engineering (ECE) at IIIT Naya Raipur.

According to Anurag Singh, assistant professor, at the institute, the AI model was trained using images captured by drones of crops infected with various sorts of diseases and insects that commonly appear in India. He said the program can help identify insects that look similar and are difficult to distinguish without machine help. He also noted that drones can help farmers inspect large fields, where manual intervention is difficult and inefficient.

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The fact is that farmers around the world lose up to 40% of their crops to insects and diseases each year, costing industries about $290 billion, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

That said, plant health monitoring using drones is not new in India. According to Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, chief executive of drone service provider Skylark Drones, the company used to work only with large seed companies that could afford a large-scale drone deployment on their farms, but awareness among farmers, agriculture institutes and startups is growing. “A lot of agritech startups have reached out to us since the budget announcement asking for solutions for farmers. Now we are building software to automate spraying of chemicals in fields using drones,” he said.

During the Union Budget speech on 1 February, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the use of kisan drones will be promoted for crop assessment, spraying insecticides and nutrients. The promotion of drones-as-a-service is also expected to encourage more farmers to use drone services to protect their crops, according to industry experts. On February 18, PM Narendra Modi launched 100 made in India drones that were simultaneously deployed in farms across India as part of an exercise. The drones were made by Chennai-based Garuda Aerospace.

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Spraying pesticides and water-soluble fertilisers in large fields is another application of drones that is gaining traction in India. For instance, in January, the Rajasthan government carried out a pilot on the outskirts of Jaipur where drones were used to spray fertilizers on crops.  

The Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited (IFFCO), a cooperative society that manufactures fertilizers is not behind either. In an interview with Mint on February 2, Anil Kumar Gupta, executive director of IT services at IFFCO, told Mint it has been using drones to spray nano urea in agricultural fields since October 2021. Nano urea is a liquified form of urea that is mixed and sprayed with water as an alternative to conventional urea. It was developed by IFFCO in collaboration with Indian council of medical research (ICMR).

The company has also conducted training for farmers who will invest in drones. It will charge a fee to spread the nano urea in farms. IFFCO said 250 pilots have been trained so far and trials have been conducted in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

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"Using drones for spraying can be very effective for crops such as sugarcane as it is easier to spray on top of leaves. Similarly in paddy fields it is easier to manoeuvre drones as compared to walking through paddy fields, which can be difficult," he said.

In December 2021, the government released standard operating procedures (SOP) for use of drones for spraying pesticides. Gupta said it will be a while before drones being used to spray pesticides, urea, etc., over large farms will become kosher, but the ball has started rolling.