Farmers are using AI-controlled drones to combat crop diseases and insects

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Institutes, farmers and agricultural companies in India are using technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve agricultural yields. For example, researchers at IIIT Naya Raipur have partnered with Indira Gandhi Agriculture University in Raipur to develop a drone-based crop health prediction solution that uses AI to identify insects and diseases that commonly afflict crops and suggest fast and accurate remedial actions.

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 widespread due to the lack of accurate information on the extent of crop infection.

IIIT Naya Raipur’s forecasting solution uses drones to monitor crops and capture live images when it detects problems in them. The images are then sent from the drone in real time to the institute’s servers, where a convolutional neural network (CNN)-based image classification model is used to identify the disease and the insects that infest it.

CNNs are AI algorithms commonly used for image and video recognition. They can process an image, assign meaning to its various attributes, and distinguish one image from another.

“Once footage is captured and sent to our server, it is analyzed and within seconds farmers are notified of crop issues in 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 by farmers,” said Shrivishal Tripathi, Assistant Professor of Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE) at IIIT Naya Raipur. According to Anurag Singh, an assistant professor at the institute, the AI ​​model was trained using images taken by drones of plants infected with diseases and insects common in India. He said the program could help identify insects that look similar and are difficult to tell apart without the help of machines. He also noted that drones can help farmers inspect large fields where manual intervention is difficult and inefficient.

In fact, farmers worldwide lose up to 40% of their crops to insects and disease every year, costing the industry around $290 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). However, crop health monitoring with drones is not new in India. According to Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, CEO of drone services company Skylark Drones, the company used to only work with large seed companies that could afford large-scale drone deployment on their farms, but awareness is growing among farmers, agricultural institutes and start-ups. “Many agritech startups have approached us since the budget was announced, asking for solutions for farmers. Now we’re building software to automate spraying chemicals on fields with drones,” he said.

During the Union Budget speech on Feb. 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the use of Kisan drones for crop assessment, spraying of insecticides and nutrients will be encouraged. The promotion of drones-as-a-service should also encourage more farmers to use drone services to protect their crops, according to industry experts.

Spraying pesticides and water-soluble fertilizers over large fields is another drone application that is gaining traction. For example, in January, the Rajasthan government conducted a pilot project on the outskirts of Jaipur using drones to spray fertilizer.

Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd (IFFCO), a cooperative that produces fertilizers, is also not behind it. In an interview on Feb. 2, Anil Kumar Gupta, IFFCO’s executive director of IT services, said it has been using drones to spray nanourea on agricultural fields since October 2021. Nanourea is a liquefied form of urea that is mixed and sprayed with water as an alternative to traditional urea. It was developed by IFFCO in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

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