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Institutes, farmers and agricultural enterprises in India are employing technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve farm yields. 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 AI to identify insects and diseases that commonly afflict crops, and suggest quick and accurate remedies.

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

IIIT Naya Raipur’s forecasting solution uses drones 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. As per Anurag Singh, assistant professor, at the institute, the AI model was trained using images captured by drones of crops infected with diseases and insects that commonly appear in India. He said the programme can help identify insects that look similar and are difficult to distinguish without help of machines. He also noted that drones can help farmers inspect large fields, where manual intervention is difficult and inefficient.

The fact is that farmers globally lose up to 40% of their crops to insects and diseases every 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.

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

The Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd (IFFCO), a cooperative society that manufactures fertilizers, is not behind either. In an interview on 2 February, Anil Kumar Gupta, executive director of IT services at IFFCO, said 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).

abhijit.ahaskar@livemint.com

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