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Flight to Safety: The case for drones in spraying agrochemicals

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 12-03-2020 Asitava Sen
a close up of a green field © Provided by The Indian Express

Indian farmers are yet to reap the full benefits of the economic reforms initiated in 1991. Besides, they face structural challenges that include fragmented landholdings, lack of adequate market access, rising costs (especially of human labor), poor/below par yields in most crops and — not the least — low usage of modern technology relative to their counterparts in the US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina or China.

Satellite-driven technology, big data analytics, and digital solutions are helping farmers in many countries today make more informed cropping decisions with regard to weather, soil nutrient application, and pest and disease control. Many of these technologies are likely to be introduced in India over the next few years.

One area that we believe can have a major impact on our farms, and needs quick government intervention, is the use of drones for spraying of agrochemical products.

The main benefits of drones are increased efficiency and precision of agrochemical applications, in turn, leading to improved pest management and crop productivity as well as a significant reduction in operator exposure during spray operations. The field capacity of drone-assisted spraying is about 20 times higher than that of manual spraying. The other benefits are lower water consumption (as the material is sprayed in concentrated formulations) and the development of licensed applicators. These include community spraying professionals who may provide application services to farmers similar to combine harvester operators, thereby creating new skilled employment potential in rural India.

The investment banker Goldman Sachs has forecast the agriculture sector to be the second-largest global commercial/civil user of drones, after construction, by the end of this year. Drones in agrochemical application have, in just a few years, grown in sophistication and scale, boosting the ease and affordability of use. The good news is that this innovation is being driven largely by Asia. The adoption of drones in farms is the highest in countries such as China, Korea, and Japan, which are also confronting growing labour shortage challenges from urbanisation and ageing populations.

In China, the world’s biggest civilian drones manufacturer, the number of these machines deployed in agriculture is estimated to have doubled to around 13,000 between 2016 and 2017, with the total unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)-treated acreage, too, trebling to reach roughly 7 million hectares. The economies of scale in usage have meant that the per-hectare operating costs in China are now equivalent to just Rs 100-150 for field crops (rice, wheat and maize) and Rs 250-400 in orchards.

Our farmers, too, can immensely benefit through swift adoption of this nascent technology by taking a leaf from China’s book. However, for this, the government, both at the Centre and states, must respond in a timely manner through a sound regulatory framework, so as to prevent uncontrolled and inappropriate use. The focus should be to minimise the potential risks that come with the unfamiliarity and rapid adoption of an emerging technology.

The first step in establishing a robust policy framework is to identify the various risks associated with drone application and the processes to deal with them. These cover the specifications for the drones/UAVs and the agrochemical formulations being used, the capabilities of the spray operators and training standards, and environmental variables. Based on these, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) should be put in place for spray operators, drone manufacturers and agrochemical companies to comply with.

Here, it is worth looking at Japan and borrowing from the requirements — both for the licensing of UAVs and operators, as well as product registration for drone spraying — stipulated in the country’s most recent revised 2019 guidance document. Having a long history in the use of UAVs — especially remote-controlled helicopters or RCHs — for spraying of agrochemicals and with over 30 years of data generation, Japan provides the strongest point of reference for framing the appropriate rules and SOPs. As an industry association representing around 70% of India’s crop protection market, we recommend that the government develops a regulatory framework for deploying drones in agrochemical spraying based on the experience and best practices of a country such as Japan.

The necessary regulations should take into consideration (1) civil aviation laws (both local and umbrella) and the setting of vehicle specifications, (2) SOPs and piloting requirements for safe use, and (3) product approvals and permissions for spray operations. In addition to the general regulations, we would recommend at least four other criteria to be met for obtaining permission: (1) approval of vehicle needs, (2) licensing of pilots/operators and training for agrochemical application by drones, (3) registration of agrochemical products sought to be sprayed, and (4) strict adherence to label instructions on products.

More specifically, we propose the setting up a system for certification or licensing of drone operators to ensure their capability for piloting the UAV machines safely. Such certification/licensing should be subject to regular renewals and conducting of refresher courses. The authorities should also accredit training facilities to put in place a standardised programme for all agricultural drone operations.

The product registration process must be simplified and not duplicated from scratch, more so if the drone use is just an extension for a formulation that is already approved for conventional manual spraying. The idea is to reduce registration timelines and make available the same crop protection products to farmers through a new spraying technology, without compromising on safety. The Japanese guidelines stipulate that the bio-efficacy and maximum residue limits (MRL) data for drone/UAV applications be considered equivalent to that of conventional spraying, so long as the critical parameters (active ingredient dose per hectare, pre-harvest intervals and number of applications/sprayings) are within a determined range. There is no need, therefore, for any separate UAV bio-efficacy and MRL trials, even if additional crop safety studies might be required in some cases.

It would be in the interest of farmers and even the industry if UAV/drone technology can be deployed for agrochemical applications. This should be supported by a robust and pragmatic science-based policy framework, with Japan’s revised guidance document serving as the most suitable point of reference for drafting our regulations.

The writer is Chief Executive Officer, CropLife India

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