India is an agricultural powerhouse of the world. The agricultural sector contributes about 18% to India’s total GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The lack of access to advanced agricultural technologies such as drones has proved to be one of the limiting factors in the growth of this sector. A new SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), dated 16th July 2021, could allow agriculture drones for pesticide applications.
In 2018, the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) released the first set of Indian drone laws. In March 2021, the second set of drone regulations titled UAS Rules were laid out. However, both these regulations made it a tedious and challenging process to use commercial drones in agriculture. The Government has released a new set of draft regulations that will ease restrictions and promote the use of commercial drones. In addition to that, an SOP has also been released solely for insecticide spraying using agricultural drones.
What is an SOP?
An SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) is a step-by-step guide for a particular process or a series of events. Essentially, an SOP is a list of instructions for a particular task. Here, the SOP lists out the instructions, provisions, and requirements for drones, drone pilots, and drone operators to follow during an aerial insecticide spraying operation. Since agricultural drones have been restricted as per the Indian drone regulations, the Government released several sets of instructions to allow the operation of agricultural drones.
Provisions and Requirements of the SOP
The provisions of this SOP will specify the classes of insecticides that are approved for aerial spraying. As per the Insecticides Rules 1971, the aerial spraying of insecticides using drones will be subjected to additional provisions. Some of the most important provisions are as follows:
- The area for insecticide spraying should be marked before the flight by the drone operator.
- Only approved insecticides must be used
- Washing decontamination and first-aid facilities shall be provided by the operators.
- Animals or individuals not connected with the operation must not be permitted to enter the operation premises for a specific period.
- The drone pilots shall undergo insecticides specialization training including clinical effects of the insecticides.
Another new amendment is the change of the import regulation body. Now, the import of drones and drone parts will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) instead of the DGCA. Therefore there will be no change in the import policy for drones or drone parts. This can make importing specialized agricultural drones or drone parts easier.
The SOP emphasizes that the use of drones in agriculture is being permitted through the process of conditional exemption. Agricultural drones would require a UIN (Unique Identification Number), UAOP (Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit), and other requirements as specified in the UAS Rules 2021. As of now, agri drones will be regulated under the older UAS Rules 2021 since the new regulations are still in the developmental phase.
General Instructions for Operating an Aerial Spraying Drone
Here are some general instructions for operating an agricultural drone:
- The drone must be NPNT compliant with its UIN affixed onto it
- Obtain UAOP and pre-flight permissions for the operation
- Ensure the drone is in optimum flying condition
- Only fly your drone in daylight, in good weather conditions, and VLOS (Visual Line of Sight)
- Be aware of airspace/zone restrictions and steer away from airports or heliports
- Respect the privacy of people
- Log your flights and inform local law enforcement authorities about the drone operation beforehand
For agriculture use, only NPNT compliant drones that have been approved by the DGCA are permitted. Read more about NPNT compliant drones in India. The SOP specifies certain features that a drone must contain for the agricultural operation. They are a depleting tank with spray nozzle, altitude sensor, GPS with the ability to form a geofence, variable flow control, and Return to Home (RTH).
Pilot Training and Limitations
A crucial criterion is the specialized pilot training devised by the DGCA. Drone pilots must complete a training module that encompasses agrochemical handling, agri-mission specific ops protocols, and relevant crop protection guidelines. Only DGCA certified pilots who have completed the agri module will be permitted to operate the agricultural drones.
The SOP has mentioned several limitations and precautions that the drone pilot must keep in mind. Environmental factors such as wind speed, temperature, and relative humidity must be monitored. The document also outlines steps to be taken to reduce overspray into unwanted territory, drift management, and the creation of buffer zones between non-targets. Since aerial spraying of insecticides is a high-risk operation it should be carried out at an appropriate distance from water bodies, residential areas, public utilities, etc.
There are several pre-application precautions that a drone pilot must take. One of them is wearing a PPE kit. CIBC&RC guidelines must be adhered to while selecting the approved insecticide formulations and diluting them. Read the official SOP for more information.
This SOP will certainly improve the accessibility of drone technology in the agricultural sector. As of now, there are about 22 NPNT compliant drones in India. Aerial spraying drones such as the Agribot and DART are already being tested and deployed in various parts of the country.
The new draft drone rules can open up the pathway to some of the leading agricultural drones used worldwide. Additionally, by easing up restrictions around drones, the Indian drone industry will also receive some room to grow steadily.