Could Locust Invasion Lead to Drone Innovation?
As you may have heard, huge swarms of desert locusts are devouring crops across western and central India in what has been seen as the worst locust invasion in almost 30 years.
That's sad, but what does it have to do with drones?
Drone use was essentially outright banned in India from 2014 to 2018.
Since 2018, authorities have nominally eased restrictions and tried to cultivate a robust UAS sector, but the regulations are so burdensome, and the permissions application process is so slow, that there has been limited innovation in the UAS sector thus far.
However, due to the locust invasion, that might change. In rapid response to the crisis, on May 21st, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) granted a conditional exemption to the agriculture ministry’s Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine, and Storage (DPPQS). The exemption allows DPPQS to use remotely piloted aircraft in support of aerial surveillance, photography, public announcements, and spraying pesticides.
According to a senior government official, “this is unprecedented for India since it’s the first time we’ve allowed drones to carry payloads in a civilian use case, or spray any pesticides for that matter.”
He added that there had previously been some trials for crop spraying using drones, but that those were strictly restricted to specific zones, whereas the new exemption allows the agriculture ministry to fly drones anywhere.
Government drones are nice and all, but how will this foster innovation in the UAS sector?
According to the exemption, DPPQS can choose to own and operate their own drones, and each operation has to be carried out under their overall supervision and control, but they can engage third-party UAS service providers to provide and/or operate the drones.
Various state agricultural departments have issued tenders for drones and drone services to the private sector, and there’s been pressure on MoCA to work out some kinks in its regulation of agricultural drone operations that had been ignored for too long.
Cool. So, back to pesticide drones - are they working?
It’s too early to tell just how cost-effective the pesticide drones are, but the initial reports seem pretty promising.
Notably, according to a deputy director of Rajasthan’s Agriculture Department, when government drones sprayed pesticide in two of Rajasthan’s districts, an impressive 70% of the locusts were destroyed.
However, there are some pretty tough operational challenges that might stymie success. For one, during monsoon season, certain regions of India get very heavy rain, which can make safe UAS operations impossible. For instance, a team in Jaipur was faced with heavy rains until late at night. They seem to have launched the operation around midnight, which is technically a violation of the exemption’s conditions since technically nighttime operations are currently not allowed.
Additionally, the mountainous and hilly terrain of certain regions may make it hard to maintain visual line one sight (VLOS) throughout operations. On the bright side, perhaps these adverse conditions will force regulatory agencies to issue permission for night and BVLOS operations, which could set a pretty cool status quo for the UAS sector as a whole.
So, will the restrictions be loosened now that drones are "the good guys?"
It’s too early to tell, but this is certainly an unprecedented opportunity for the power of UAS technology to be demonstrated in India and other parts of the world.
If the locust-fighting drones are visibly successful, it could certainly pressure the government to create a framework for UAS authorizations for other dire circumstances such as flooding, landslides, and other natural disasters. And in a broader global context, the publicity of these operations in India could deepen global awareness of this use case.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has already been developing anti-locust drone solutions in east Africa since February, and if they, the government of India, and other disaster relief stakeholders, joined forces, they might just set a fantastic new precedent for drone use in agriculture.