New horizons: Drones take flight over Indian farmsWhile there is no concrete data on the number of drones being used in the agriculture sector, according to an American consulting firm, agricultural drone usage in India will grow at 38.5% CAGR and reach a value of $121.43 million by 2030.
SNV Sudhir
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<div class="paragraphs"><p>A drone sprays pesticides at an agricultural farm in Telangana. </p></div>

A drone sprays pesticides at an agricultural farm in Telangana.

Credit: Special Arrangement

Hyderabad: While driving through the lush green fields that line Telangana’s Khammam –Warangal highway, do not be startled if you see a drone in flight, busy spraying pesticides on the season’s crop.


Drones, which were most usually linked with security, war, and disaster management, are quickly gaining new ground in Indian agriculture. In India, the potential value for drone-powered solutions is highest in the infrastructure sector at $ 45.2 billion according to an analysis by Pricewaterhouse Cooper. The second highest valued is the agriculture sector at $32 billion for such interventions. 

While there is no concrete data on the number of drones being used in the agriculture sector, according to an American consulting firm, agricultural drone usage in India will grow at 38.5 per cent CAGR and reach a value of $121.43 million by 2030. The adoption rate of drones will form 2 per cent of total agriculture machinery spending, the firm predicted. 

The stagnation of the prices of produce, followed by the mass exodus of labourers from agriculture and the consequent rise in labour wages have all made such mechanisation imminent, as it was in the case of Apuri Nageswara Rao, who grows chilli on 10 acres of land in Thettelapadu village of Thirumalayapalem mandal of Khammam district.

“There were times when I was frustrated with the unavailability of manual labour. The entire crop is lost if spraying is not done at the right time. Now, I need not worry. I purchased a drone which sprays all 10 acres with pesticides. My son and I take turns to operate it,” he says.  

He is able to save a substantial amount on the cost of labour. After he purchased a drone for around Rs 3 lakh, Apuri now saves Rs 1 lakh on labour charges every year. With the use of drones, an unexpected bonus has also been a drop in pesticide use. In the past, he would spend at least Rs 27,000 on chemicals every year. Now, even this expense has dropped to Rs 18,000. 

Numerous forecasts predict that drones will be the future of agriculture. Recognising this, in 2022 Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that having a drone on every field would be a game changer for the agriculture economy. Since then the government has been encouraging ‘Kisan Drones’. 

The advent of new technology into agriculture has begun, but what will this transformation mean for the 144.3 million labourers in the sector, or the environment and economy? These are some questions that loom large.

One such concern with drone usage has been about the aerial spraying of harmful pesticides.

Nandini Jayaram, a Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha leader, says by increasing the use of modern technology, the state may face adverse effects. 

“The use of drones to spray chemicals will result in contamination of soil and water. Today, we may find it as a solution but in the future, it is bound to harm humans,” she says.  There must also be a focus on the irreversible damage to soil and water. 

Known as pesticide drift, experts fear that drone-based application of chemicals for farming could spread to non-target areas, contaminating water bodies, soil and even human settlements nearby. 

“Due to aerial spraying of chemicals, there is a higher chance of the chemical being spread to a larger area,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, the convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

Scientific studies in the USA found that spray drones produce a significant amount of pesticide drift. Employing swathe offsets and specialised nozzles can cut this spread.

“The flying and spraying parameters of drones significantly influence droplet deposition and spray drift,” says T Kiran Babu of Prof Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University (PJTSAU).

Babu is part of a team from the state’s agriculture varsity that had developed standard operating procedures (SoPs) for drone-based pesticide applications in rice. PJTSAU also established a drone academy to train aspiring pilots and to conduct research on drones in farming.

Spray height, volume, drone flight speed, droplet parameters, application rate and spray solution properties are all important parameters that are to be taken into consideration while taking up aerial spraying using drones.

Following the SoPs is paramount as in such cases there is negligible environmental effect. “These SoPs are important,” added Kiran Babu.

However, it is unclear how many users keep these guidelines in mind and who regulates or monitors them. “Who is going to monitor if SoPs are strictly followed or not? Currently, there is no such mechanism. Governments should also look into this very important aspect,” a farmers association leader told DH.

While there have been multiple applications of drones in agriculture that include water, plant health soil assessments and field mapping, currently their use is mostly to spray pesticides. In fact, according to a report by the American consulting firm, spraying operations have more than 50 per cent of the total market share. 

“It is difficult to find a skilled workforce to spray pesticides. Not many are keen due to the health hazards associated with it. It is here that drones can be employed and where farmers can reap maximum benefit,” says Prem Kumar Vislawath, CEO of a drone tech start up. 

His company designs and manufactures small and medium-category agricultural drones. Vislawath says that there is high demand from Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, and Haryana. In these states,  governments have adopted agriculture drone-specific policies that help farmers access bank loans to purchase drones. 

Impact assessment 

Some scientists say that using drones is beneficial for agriculture labourers who have extended contact with such chemicals. “Spraying pesticides is a tedious and hazardous job. Getting labourers to spray fertilisers has an impact on them too. Drones are the solution as they reduce the cost, time and risk to humans,” says a scientist with the University of Agricultural Sciences Bangalore.

He says while a labourer takes nearly two days to spray one acre of land, drones can spray two-and-a-half acres in just 12 to 15 minutes.

Currently, the Karnataka government has permitted the spraying of chemicals using drones only on 10 crops.

Various agriculture universities are conducting studies on the impact of drones on soil and water. “So far, the results have been encouraging. We need to collect data for one more year before coming to any conclusion on this,” the scientist says.

The problems have been framed incorrectly according to Kavitha. “The question is not about preventing farm labourers coming in contact with harmful chemicals while spraying pesticide, our efforts should be to minimise the use of chemicals itself in the sector,” she says. 

Labour loss 

In the present form of spraying chemicals, two labourers are employed over a week. With the advent of drones, only one drone pilot can complete the task.

Such mechanisation has led to employment loss fears among agricultural labourers, says Kalaburagi-based economist Sangeetha Kattimani. “There is a fear among the farm labourers that the use of drones can snatch their jobs and could lead to greater distress among the peasants,” she says. 

On the other hand, there is also a pool of skilled youths who have found new opportunities. “There is a trend of youth coming back to agriculture as smart technology has helped them make a better living. Drone pilots are making a decent living by operating the machinery on a rental basis,” she says.

In Telangana, Rathod Satish of Narayankhed is one such trained drone pilot. He charges about Rs 500 per hour to operate a spray drone which he purchased a few years ago under the Centre’s Agri Infrastructure Fund (AIF) scheme.

“Sometimes, I work at least eight hours a day, still I cannot take the load of requests. Now, I do not have to go to cities to eke out my living,” says Satish. After finishing his graduation, Satish underwent training at JTSAU’s drone academy. 

Technical expertise

Even with such training programmes and new opportunities, a lack of technical expertise hinders the uptake of drones in farming. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, the response to the usage of drones in agriculture has been mixed. While farmers in the fertile Cauvery Delta region, the rice bowl of the state, are slowly adapting to the latest technology to overcome perennial labour shortage, their counterparts in other parts of the state are yet to embrace drones for spraying nutrients, pesticides and fungicides. 

“In the next three to five years, I believe no farmer can do agriculture without the use of drones,” ‘Cauvery’ S Dhanapalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers Protection Association, tells DH.  

While the government provides loans to farmers for buying drones, not many are interested in procuring one. 

“We do not have the expertise to operate the equipment. Since a lot of private companies offer the service, we prefer to rent the drones rather than buy them,” says Mohan, a farmer from Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu.


Arivu, a farmer from Budalur in Thanjavur, says he has yet to purchase the equipment because of the expenses involved. “I cultivate on 10 acres but I am still apprehensive because I feel this might add additional expenses. The companies which offer drone services should reduce the rates so that more farmers can use it,” he adds.

In Kerala, drones are yet to gain popularity and traction in agriculture. Even as farmers admit that it is a cost-effective and time-saving alternative, they highlight the lack of awareness and support through subsidies to purchase drones.

Long way to go

“What is ailing the penetration of drones in farming is the lack of awareness among farmers. A lack of proper coordination between the Centre and states on policy issues has also led to slow adoption. For instance, agriculture is a state subject, and the state governments should encourage the schemes announced by the Centre like Rs 10 lakh unsecured loans from the Agri Infrastructure Fund at minimal interest rates,” Vislawath says. 

Policy considerations around monitoring pesticide use and drone parameters are also of utmost importance. Modernisation of technology and advancement of machines in the farming sector compounded by disparity in payment of wages in white and blue-collar jobs are all factors pushing farmers and labourers out of the agricultural sector, Nandini Jayaram says. The advent of modern technology is only a stop-gap measure and there is a need to address persisting issues as well, she adds. 

(With inputs from Pavan H Kumar in Hubballi, ETB Sivapriyan in Chennai, Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai and Arjun Raghunath in Thiruvananthapuram) 

(Published 25 February 2024, 06:53 IST)