The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture is an integral part of agro-industry in the developed world. In India too, drones are being sought out for functions such as crop field scanning. This is what prompted 23-year-old Pranav Manpuria to return to India after completing his bachelor’s in business administration from Illinois Tech in Chicago, US. Along with Kunal Sharma, an engineering graduate from RNSIT, Bengaluru, he co-founded the agro-tech enterprise, VDrone Agro, last year.

The simple solution: vDrone Agro develops custom-built drones to map farms for precision agriculture, and provides farmers with actionable data to improve crop health and increase yield. The firm charges farmers Rs400-800 per acre for drone deployment. It has developed a software which analyses the data collected to provide details to farmers about the health and quality of land and crop, such as which portions are less fertile, what portions have stunted growth, etc.

The drones are lightweight multirotor quadcopters. The start-up has so far tested and deployed drones at farms in Karnataka, where over 400 farmers have used their services. It is now working with some agro-companies in Andhra Pradesh as well.

Though the civilian use of drones has been banned by the directorate general of civil aviation, Manpuria says vDrone Agro is one of six drone companies working with the regulatory body to set up a platform for such companies.

Defining a wicked problem: The distressed farm sector. Manpuria says it was painful to see and hear about the plight of farmers. “When we saw that there was something (drone technology) that could help improve their crop yield and their revenue, it was an easy decision to begin working on it," he says.

Supporting pillars: The International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Technology (iCreate), an incubation centre for technology businesses, helped vDrone with resources and mentorship. “The iCreate has helped take our venture from something we were doing to help a few farmers in Karnataka to building vDrone as a proper business," says Manpuria.

Past life: Both were students before starting this enterprise.

Cracking the code: With vDrone, he explains, farmers are able to get a better understanding of crop health by monitoring the data mapped through drones. He says the enterprise seeks to improve productivity and efficiency by permitting a more focused approach to farming through data.

Strong suit: Manpuria says the science has been known for decades, but this knowledge needed to be distilled and scaled down to fit into a drone, and made affordable enough to commercialize. “Since 2016, we have been running experiments to drive down the cost of the mapping equipment from over $600 (around Rs39,000) to about $60. We are also assembling the drone in India in a form factor that is 60% smaller and lighter," he says.

Manpuria says the team has built a post-processing software completely in-house, unlike other drone companies that are dependent on the cloud to process data, which is not practical for deployment in rural India.

Reality check: The problem, Manpuria says, was that it took longer to develop and test their product than they had anticipated. “It’s easy to get sucked into the development cycles of the product and lose focus on the business aspects," he says, adding that they have been using funds “judiciously" since they have not received any major financial grants or support from other organizations.

Exit plan: Manpuria says the team tries to take decisions after understanding their long-term consequences. “If, however, we do fail, I think that we are scrappy enough to figure out a way to turn things around. We have some very interesting technology, it’s just a matter of finding the right market," he says.

Third eye: Priyank Narayan, director, Centre for Entrepreneurship at Ashoka University, says it is commendable that new-age technologies are finding applications in agriculture, and these should get support from local governments for deployment. “The challenge, however, is that farm sizes are quite fragmented for drone surveillance, and, for this idea to be successful, it will need to rely on consortiums of farmers to come together and subscribe to their services. Something that perhaps they need to incorporate in their pricing and offering," he adds.

Social impact warriors is a series that traces the path of award-winning social start-ups set up in the last couple of years and the journey of the founders towards solving a wicked problem.