India is thinking of using drones to beat back locusts that have swarmed into parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, posing a threat to crops spread over thousands of hectares.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation, in an order dated May 21, granted conditional exemption to the agriculture ministry to use remotely piloted aircraft – as drones are more formally known – to spray pesticide and in aerial surveillance and photography, specifically in “anti-locust” measures.
A senior government official told ET that the order was approved within 24 hours, after the agriculture ministry wrote to the civil aviation ministry seeking permission to use drones, due to the threat posed by locusts to food security.
“In view of the urgency of the matter, the Government of India, in exercise of powers conferred under Rule 160 of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, provides “conditional exemption” to Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare,” according to the order.
ET has reviewed a copy of the order.
The Faridabad-based Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage (DPPQS) has been made the nodal agency for use of drones in combating the locust swarms.
The civil aviation ministry’s conditional exemption is applicable only for rotary wing drones not exceeding 25 kg.
The DPPQS will be allowed to operate its own drones or work with third-party service providers to cover as much of the affected area as possible.
To avoid delays in their deployment, the agency will only need to upload details of every flight and pesticide sprayed within seven days of drone flights. No prior permission is needed.
“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,” said a government official. “There have been some trials for crop spraying using drones, but those were strictly restricted to specific zones. In this exemption, the agriculture ministry can fly drones anywhere.”
The drones will need to have a Unique Identification Number (UIN) or Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN), as per the order. India has granted DANs to around 20,000 drones so far.
The move comes soon after the government fast-tracked approvals for drone use in aerial surveillance and photography by its departments to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
The civil aviation ministry has launched a portal, GARUD, for the same, and has permitted drone deployments even in densely populated urban areas.
“The government is very supportive of innovation in the drone sector, especially Made-in-India ones. We seek a balance between socio-economic, safety and national security considerations before allowing a particular type of drone operation,” said Amber Dubey, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, who overlooks the drones division at the ministry.
The twin approvals could also set the stage for India coming up with progressive guidelines on drone use by civilians, said industry players. This could also boost the local drone industry, which has faced delays in getting various approvals from the government.