- The limitations to procure and use high-quality resolution data had for long hindered the growth of agriculture technology in India.
- The recent liberalisation of the geospatial sector has opened up scope for improved agronomic management, reduced cultivation cost, and increased return on investment.
- For optimal results from precision farming, the government needs to solve the problem of equipment shortage and restrictive drone use guidelines, say experts.
By 2050, around 9.74 billion people are estimated to be inhabiting this planet and the requirement for food is expected to increase proportionately as well. To meet the ever-growing food demand and simultaneously address public concerns for the environment, experts suggest greater use of precision technology in agriculture. Precision farming combines the power of artificial intelligence (AI), Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and Big Data. It is efficient, climate-smart, and nutrition-sensitive.
Citing an ongoing project by the ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Raj Singh, head of the institute’s agronomy division, said, “Using readily available devices in the market like colour chart and GreenSeeker (a handheld sensor), we are trying to determine the nitrogen requirement for rice and maize crops. This precision nitrogen management will help save the fertiliser costs, prevent environmental harm and lead to efficient use of the huge nitrogen imports by the Centre.”
Singh added that nitrogen use efficiency (the ratio of the crop nitrogen uptake to the total input of nitrogen fertiliser) in India is very low – at about 25-30 percent. Supplied through urea or ammonium phosphate fertilisers, excess of the chemical increases nitrate toxicity in groundwater.
Unlike other leading food producers of the world that had begun reaping the benefits of precision agriculture by the turn of the century, India has been slow in adopting this technology. Restrictive geospatial policies and small landholdings have been the major hurdles.
However, with India recently lifting blockades in the geospatial sector, India’s agri-tech community is looking ahead to a host of opportunities.
Liberalised geospatial sector offers a wider canvas for experimentation
The government, on February 15, 2021 opened access to its geospatial data and mapping services for all Indian entities. Until now, individuals and companies willing to use mapping data had to seek approval under the Geospatial Information Regulation Act, 2016. The Department of Science and Technology has rendered obsolete all policies that regulated information on data in restricted zones. It also released a draft National Geospatial Policy, 2021 in May that further discusses the methods to create, access, and use geospatial data under the new guidelines.
Following this move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “India’s farmers will be benefited by leveraging the potential of geospatial and remote sensing data. Democratising data will enable the rise of new technologies & platforms that will drive efficiencies in agriculture and allied sectors.”
Location information is critical to agriculture. While the global positioning system (GPS) locates precise crop location, the global information system (GIS) stores this data. This data later helps in crop scouting, soil sampling, weed location, accurate planting and harvesting.
The use of remote sensing technologies for precision farming has grown rapidly during the past few decades. However, unlike developed nations, the availability of high-resolution (spatial, spectral and temporal) satellite images has remained a constant challenge in India.
“Until now, the lack of fine geospatial data, restrictions on its collection and mapping services made it difficult to analyse several complex factors like soil type, soil fertility, moisture availability, topography, slope, moisture, and temperature,” said Singh.
A marginal farmer based in Andhra Pradesh using Cropin’s solutions to monitor and boost yield in his 0.15-hectare tobacco farm. Photo courtesy by Cropin.
For instance, to monitor crop health and water consumption demands, one needs to map irrigated areas through remote sensing data such as the NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index).
“The NDVI maps currently available here are often outdated or prepared with spatially coarse resolution data,” said Kamlesh Golhani, assistant professor at SRM Institute of Science and Technology.
“So domestic companies often rely on foreign players for good quality NDVI data. But with the new geospatial relaxations, Indian crop forecasting centres might be able to churn out data that is more reliable,” he added.
A long-awaited government move for agri-tech firms
“Given the very low adoption of technology for farming in India, there is already a huge growth potential for agri-tech companies. The new norms will help increase the adoption rate even more,” said Praveen Pankajakshan, vice president – AI and data science at CropIn, a Bengaluru-based agri-tech company.
The Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011, released by the Department of Space, did away with the 2001 policy mandate that restricted public distribution of imagery sharper than 5.8-metre resolution. It allowed users to access data of resolution up to one metre but mandated “data screening and approval by the appropriate agency” for finer data procurement by private agencies.
The new rules permit all Indian entities to store and process data up to the threshold value – 1-metre horizontal resolution and 3-metre vertical – and even finer. Therefore, using the higher resolution images, companies can build more precise AI models and roll out advanced farming solutions.
“With the opening of the data owned by government agencies, the accuracies of the current predictive models will improve, increasing the confidence of various stakeholders for adopting the technology. AI can give better results with more data and newer use cases with newer challenges. Therefore, the scepticism among farmers around using newer technologies will reduce and eventually fade away, once they see the impact,” said Pankajakshan.
“It is also going to assist the BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance) segment to understand the risk better and underwrite loans and insurance products. The data providers will get more competitive, therefore opening a flood for choice of quality data that is relatively inexpensive,” he added.
India’s precision agriculture market was valued at over USD 57 million in 2019 and is anticipated to grow at CAGR of over 10 percent to reach USD 99 million by 2025.
Overcoming hurdles with help of new geospatial guidelines
Suresh Kumar, head of Agriculture and Soils Department, Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, ISRO, said, “Based on the recent updates in geospatial norms, ISRO is preparing a new remote sensing policy. It is aiming to provide resolution data of up to 50 centimetres to all Indian organisations, including private companies, which until now were denied remote sensing data of such high resolution.”
Once implemented, this provision can solve a key challenge that had for long hindered the widescale adoption of precision farming in India – small landholding size.
Though the number of landholdings in India has grown from 71 million in 1970-71 to 146.5 million in 2015-16, the average farm size has more than halved from 2.28 hectares to 1.08 hectares. About 69 percent of India’s farmers are marginal, with an average farm size of 0.38 hectare.
“For optimal results using 1-metre spatial resolution, there needs to be a continuous land stretch with the same crop sown over at least 100 square metres [0.01 hectare],” said Nagaraja Ravoori, geospatial chair professor at IIIT Hyderabad.
Pooling of farmlands through contract farming, proposed under the farm bills 2020, can expand the scope of precision agriculture in India, suggest experts.
ISRO’s Kumar said, “Pooling of farmlands under contract farming will help us tap better the benefits of the precision technique. It will also solve the affordability constraint, which is another major challenge to the adoption of precision farming in India, next to fragmented farming and poor awareness.”
Roadblocks to watch out for
To achieve desired outcomes, Ravoori said better clarity on drone guidelines is needed for companies to be able to collect agriculture-related data.
Another challenge he pointed out is the shortage of suitable equipment to capture high-resolution data. “The finer the resolution, the lesser is the ground area captured by the satellite. If you are recording data of resolution 1 metre or below, you can cover an area of only up to 10 square kilometres at a time. As every state has a limited number of satellites that collect data at such a granular level, by the time you get field-level data for a particular crop season in a large region, a year or more would have passed away. But crop monitoring is done best when you get seasonal crop data at regular intervals.”
Adoption of drones for data collection and application of agricultural inputs is likely to trigger new service models for agri-tech companies. Photo by Gautier Salles/Unsplash.