For India’s Millions of Farm Workers, a ‘Drone Revolution’ Looms

Fast, efficient agricultural drones are replacing laborers on Indian farms — despite the expensive price tag.

Arbab Ali & Nadeem Sarwar in Undark: Depending on the kind of sensor they’ve been armed with, drones can do a lot more than spray chemicals. Some can analyze the terrain for weeds, check moisture levels, assess for signs of pest infestation, suggest field planning, determine crop health, and even create a nutrient map of the growing harvest.

But buying a drone is no small endeavor, even for financially sound farmers, and renting it out is also fraught with risks. A battery-powered drone costs the equivalent of $8,000, whereas a petrol-powered drone costs about $15,000 —and there are also insurance and damage fees to consider.

“My livelihood is almost over since drones arrived in this village.”

In part because of these costs, drones are still part of a nascent industry in the country, and uptake is comparatively slow. As of November, there were around 13,000 drones registered in the country, though not all are used for agriculture. By comparison, the most recent census data, from 2011, estimated that the country had nearly 263 million agricultural laborers.

The industry also remains mostly unregulated. “Just like the consumer electronics market, there is going to be cutthroat competition in the agricultural drone segment. But we’re talking about agriculture, the backbone of the Indian economy,” said Vasant Bhat, founder and CEO of the agricultural drone company Trithi Robotics. “If we don’t do our due diligence and regulate the players … the drone revolution could end up doing more harm than good to the agriculture sector.”

As this transition tests its way through Indian farms, the potential consequences for agricultural laborers are profound. India has one of the world’s highest rates of farmer and farm laborer suicidesinfluenced by issues including debt burden, low financial growth prospects, frequent crop failures due to erratic climate changes, and an increasingly privatized market with few protections.

“The drone revolution could end up doing more harm than good to the agriculture sector.”

Ganesh Ram, 41, said he paid about $120 for a portable petrol engine sprayer similar to the one Sharma has—the equivalent of around 60 days’ salary. He used to spray for two months twice a year, once for the wheat crop and once for the rice crop. Before the drones, Ram said, he earned between $144 and $180 per spraying season. Now he earns less than $48 — both because work is harder to come by and because landowners use the threat of turning to drones to offer even lower wages. Read the whole article here.