Agriculture from the air: Basant to Air Tractor

Agriculture from the air: Basant to Air Tractor

Can Indian farmers ever afford to engage an aircraft to spray seeds and fertilisers? State-owned aviation major, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) thought so when it produced 39 Basant aircraft but stopped building them after 1980. Now, the Aussies want rich Indian farmers to check out the Air Tractor, a hit with farmers Down Under.

At the just concluded Aero India 2017 airshow at the Yelahanka Air Force Station, the Air Tractor lurked in a remote corner. The expectations of its promoters were modest. They were well aware that only state governments and farmers’ collectives could afford the aircraft. Even that would take at least another five years.

A few interested agriculturists stopped by as the promoters talked about the two-seater Air Tractor (AT-504). This aircraft could spray pesticides and seeds on vast fields, multi-task in fire-fighting and even transport fuel to remote locations. “We have been talking to the governments here. The response has been good,” said an Air Tractor spokesman.   

But he knew despite the huge potential for growth, the concept was yet to take off in India. “There are 200 Air Tractors in Australia, engaged in farms, fire-fighting and other utilities. However, India is one of the few big countries without agricultural aircraft,” he informed.

India did have an Agriculture Aviation division in the 1960s, when HAL was tasked with designing the Basant. Designated as H-31 Mk II, the Basant had its maiden flight on March 30, 1972. It was a conventional braced low-wing monoplane with a fixed tailwheel landing gear. Powered by a 400 HP piston engine, Basant had a raised cockpit. This helped the pilot get a good all-round view of the area during spraying operations.

So how does the Air Tractor work on Australian farms? “Rich farmers/farmers collectives take the aircraft on lease or contract. But in many cases, the aircraft is hired. When a farmer calls and provides the map with areas to be covered, we load up the aircraft and cover up to 250 acres an hour. The AT-504 can carry up to 2,000 litres of pesticide and two tons of seeds.”

For Avinder Singh, a farmer from Punjab, the Air Tractor had to wait for a market to emerge in India. His rationale was this: “Only rich farmers with more than 100 acres of land can even think of it. Governments can liaise with big agricultural corporations to try it out on state-owned farms. But the question remains: If you can get the work done by paying Rs 500 to labourers, why spend Rs 50,000 for a day on an aircraft?

Agro aviation

Agricultural aircraft undertakes aerial application of pesticides (crop dusting) or fertiliser (aerial topdressing) besides hydroseeding.

Most common agricultural aircraft are fixed-wing, such as the Air Tractor, Cessna
Ag-wagon and Gippsland GA200. But helicopters are also used.

Crop dusting with insecticides began in the 1920s in the United States. The first widely used agricultural aircraft were converted war-surplus biplanes.

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