Dr Ruchi Saxena-founder of Caerobotics Consultancy, leading India Flying Labs

Hello Dr.Ruchi, a doctor turned agriculturist – how did that happen?
As a doctor, I was never interested in simply curing a disease. My focus was always on improving health at the root level. Most diseases originate from the kind of food we eat. Unless one improves the quality of food and the nutrition status one has, diseases will prevail, and curing becomes more or less a temporary affair. So, one of my prime motivators was to tap a better agricultural system.
When I was working for the rural health systems, I realised that the communities’ health conditions cannot be addressed without addressing their livelihood. Their livelihood goes hand in hand with agriculture. Therefore, their healthcare is, directly and indirectly, affected by their profession, the livelihood that they are part of. So, that is another reason why I wanted to get into the agricultural space.
My career has evolved and I have always been questioning the existing systems – whatever they are. Even as a doctor, I was always interested in creating better reports, clean systems and becoming a part of the management, etc. This has always been a part of my portfolio.
Moving on, I became an auditor for quality systems in the healthcare spectrum. I audited a lot of healthcare organisations. Beyond that, I also started working with developmental agencies, at an international level. That was what actually got me close to situations at villages. I got to see the problems that they face, first hand, especially for the small time farmers. The large farms really do not face issues of this pattern because they have huge profit margins.
I had started working for drones and that was the first case study that we took in our research. We wanted to understand what drones could do for the small-time farmers. That is where it all integrated. I, honestly, had not planned all this when I was studying Medicine.
Things just took a natural turn in the last 13 years.

In India drones are not that popular yet and it is still a new concept. How can drones help farmers?
This, I agree, is a very new concept for India. People who know about the application of drones, for commercial benefits or for something that will improve their income, they use it for commercial photography; it is used in large-scale industry applications, like mining, railways, etc. Today, even government projects use drone to a large extent.
Recently, I was at a conference in IIT Roorkee. More than 200 papers were presented only on drones by many professors across the country. These professors were from IIT or in government-supported institutions. We assume that drones are not that popular. But according to me, they are already being used more than what we think. Now, the challenge I faced was how to take this technology form the hands of researchers to the hands of farmers. That is where the gap is and that is what needs to be bridged. This is how we have been working – we as India Flying Labs are a part of a network that covers 23 countries and this network is headed by V-Robotics – an NGO which is headquartered in Switzerland and registered in the US. They have been creating local empowered leaders in different spaces and across the globe. That is the idea.
It should not be that technology only remains in the hands of a few. It has to be passed on and go down to the community level and make real changes for people who do not have access to it – where roads and communication levels still suffer. I believe they should not be deprived of the advancements that we are looking at in the world that we live in.
What we are doing is, demonstrating these technological advancements to a group of boys from a tribal village thus generating an interest in this entire science. Our mission is to ensure these children fly drones on their own. We can support the purchase of the drones including the software which they can use. We can even perhaps buy it for a union as a collective purchase. We can support that as well through grants and/or loans.
We also provide mentorship support. Once they have flown their drones, collected all their images, then they have to be analysed, reports generated to understand the next course of action. These kind of activities can be supported until they can do all of these on their own. I personally believe that none of this is rocket science and it is something that can be taught. We will, of course, have to tone down the language that we use during the teaching stage without jargon. Use simple images and colour coded for instructions. With all this, we can be instrumental in getting these boys and girls to use this kind of technology on their own farms.
They wouldn’t have to work like in a factory, once they are trained. They can work on their own farms and become entrepreneurs. They have to gain the right know-how and they should be connected to the market place. I think it will work once we do all this.
By using these techniques, we believe that we can improve their yield by cutting down their losses and wastage. For instance, irrigation can be more focused and water can be preserved. There needs to be in-depth understanding of the types of crops which need attention. Even administering pesticides becomes focused. They can be used for only those sections of crops that need it, rather than spraying anywhere and everywhere. This saves resources and keeps your crops toxic free.

Have you introduced these drones to farmers? Have they tried using drones?
Yes! The idea of demonstration was to give them an idea of the whole system.

How was the acceptance level?
They loved it! We have conducted similar programmes in Africa as well. Wherever we do this, people are really excited. It takes a while to explain to them that this is not damaging. In fact, on the other hand, it is wonderful. I especially love the response from little children. We tell them that it is an airplane which they can fly tomorrow and they get really happy and excited.
It is something new. The excitement that we observe is something we need to tap on because, it is common knowledge that youngsters keep running away from farms. They are not interested in working on farms and do not want to get their hands dirty. So, perhaps having something flashy like a drone or robotic or AI can give them reason to be working on the farm as well.

In terms of agriculture, what are the things that we can learn from other countries?
In Africa, we were really successful at community engagement and youth empowerment – they are the people who would be working with these drones. Now when we want to do the same thing in India, it takes time to coordinate with the right people. Here, the idea is to conduct an end-to-end roll over. For example, begin with a vocational course that is tied up to a Government of India vocational programme, then give them the programme on drones, supply them with drones and software, a grant/loan with which they could start off their business. Once they start their business; for example, if they have the sowing season now, we need to observe and support them from sowing to harvest and document it. Hence, you are mapping the whole process and the training-support system also gets sorted. For example, if you detect an early infection in a part of your batch, you tend to arrest it and give it all the attention you need to give, before it spreads.
That is the kind of work we want to do on the farms we will be working on. Since each phase is getting documented, we can compare the harvest we obtain aided by technology with previous harvests. This kind of before-after studies need to be done.

How drones can help in the tribal villages in Maharashtra where farmers face a lot of issues?
We are trying to gain more Government support in whatever we are trying to do. We are waiting for the elections, so that we can get more support. We try to conduct vocational courses. When we say vocational, we plan to try at least 500 students in the next one year, in precision agriculture. That would mean:
1. You teach them how to fly the drone
2. You teach them how to use it for agriculture
3. You train them on how to go about entrepreneurship – running a business
These kind of programmes, when conducted in association with government universities within the area you are operating at, is amazing. They are already working on issues like drought, soil quality, crops etc. Now, the drones will help them generate better data. I won’t say that we’re developing solutions for all agricultural issues, but we can certainly support their efforts with everything that we do.

How do you see the future of AI in countries like India and Africa?
We use a lot of AI software ourselves – the drone images that we collect is fed to AI software, which in turn counts the number of crops that you have, the weeds that you have, diseased crops etc. This will give you exact numbers. It you map the entire district at a time that will help all farmers in that district to benefit through this endeavour. For example, if you have a 100 sq. km area that you have studied using drones and you need to count all the coconut trees in this area – you get that kind of data from AI, which may be impossible manually. You can get the differential count of coconut, mango, chikoo etc. Once you make your software sensitive to your crops, AI does the counting for you to give you precise quantity. For example, it gives you an output like, x is the number of coconut trees out of which so many are infected, etc. Once we train the AI, it becomes very easy to gain these analytics. I really see a scope for this in India, because of its size. Even if you consider one district, you have lots of people and farms to cover. You definitely need an AI and software. There is a huge scope.
There is software that we are working with but we are also trying to identify if there are local grown solutions like locally-grown drones, locally-developed software that we can use and plug-in because supporting local entrepreneurs is also among our agenda. It will help us stop importing everything. If the local innovators are really working on something that can be used for our initiative.

Besides Maharashtra, in which other states are you working at? Even Karnataka has seen a lot of issues when it comes to farmers, etc.
Since we have only begun in Dec 2018, which has not been too long before we have organised ourselves. We have so far got just this one village in Maharashtra that we have begun working with. We have had a conversation with a group in Nandurbar and Chitrakoot.
Chitrakoot is a very tricky place because it is the border area of UP and MP. They have drought issues with the rivers drying up; then there is illegal mining and lot of other challenging issues. To begin our work, we are focussing on Chitrakoot and Dahanu. As and how we get more support and as and how we connect with the locally active people, who can pull us into the solutions that they are building and working on, their challenges, etc., that is where we can work.
The reason we have identified these two places is that the implementation partner we are working with is well connected. The group, Global Features Network, is very active in these two places. It is not that we have to go to a place and begin the process all over again. They have already done their homework and when we join hands, it is easy for us to pick up from where they are right now. This is our modus operandi.
We look at partnering with the local NGOs, the local youth groups, etc. who are already very active, want to work with us and we can extend whatever we are doing to them as well.

Maharashtra apparently has conducted surveys on inhabited areas on June 1. Are you helping out them with this whole survey?
No, we are not doing it. Somebody else is doing it. That would perhaps be to get a number because right now you don’t have farm boundaries clearly defined. The drone surveys would help them identify these farm boundaries so that whatever loans and other economic support which has to be extended to the farmers, it becomes easier for the government to take steps. It is a project that they have signed up for.
We are focusing on a much more individualistic level. We want to work with the farmers themselves on their crop, their problems, and solving it. Our initiative runs at a deeper level. We don’t want to stop at a survey, but help them have better yields. That is the ultimate outcome we are looking at.

How efficiently can we get the drone technology to the South of India, for instance, in places like Udupi?
We can do a few things if we have associations joining hands with us. We can train farmers to understand and use the drone technology. So, support and training is one thing we can do. Another thing is there are times when we have multi-stakeholder consultation workshops. We can have people from communities, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, government bodies, research institutions and technology service providers, innovators attending together in one room. There everybody talks to each other to understand each other’s challenges, needs, etc. There will be discussions on what resources we will need to bridge the gaps. We will discuss if the drone technology can be of help in any of the situations. If yes, we’ll try to understand how we can make it cost effective, scalable, accessible, etc. How to democratize the technology so that everybody can use and benefit from its advantages. When we have these discussions, it is beneficial for communities to represent their group of farmers. This will help bring the local problems and challenges to the table.
A third way is if we need to acquire cross-border technologies. If farmers need to experience what is happening in drones outside the country, we can facilitate such travels, where they get to go and see what is happening, learn hands on and start implementing what they learn. Alternatively, we can call in trainers here too.
When it comes to back end support, if these communities have done data collection and everything, we can support with back-end mentoring to create reports etc.
These are a few things that can be done when and if we get affiliated with community groups.

Will it be okay for us to share your contact details with other firms/farmers?
Of course.

There is acute water problem during summers; and at the same time there is heavy rainfall during the monsoons. Does drone technology do water mapping, whereby we can recharge water reservoirs?
In Chitrakoot, when we were speaking to the district collector, he also proposed if we can help with the water problem. So, we proposed that we can map rivers, wells, ducts, etc. Chitrakoot also has a water palace which was built many years ago by the Maratha kings in their times, which till date retains water even when the entire region starts drying up. Apparently, there is some science which people knew back then, which we are yet to discover. When we are approaching water crisis, we need to do it scientifically so that we understand that the water we source needs to be stored underground. Of course, drones cannot do everything. This begins with creating the systems rightly designed to serve its purpose. We need to go about reforestation because we need trees to hold the water underground. It is not that drones can come in and create magic just like that; it doesn’t work that way. A root cause analysis has to be done to understand what is going right and what isn’t. We need to address the problems at the base level. This is a massive change that needs to be brought about. It needs to tackle people’s attitude, their lifestyles, our waste storage and disposal mechanisms, etc. Hence this needs to be a collective effort and cannot be achieved by one person or a handful of people.

Dr. Ruchi Saxena.
Global Health Systems Consultant
Director of Operations, Caerobotics Healthcare Solutions, UK
Director, India Flying Labs
E-Mail : ruchi@caerobotics.org/ dr.ruchi.saxena@gmail.com/ Mob: +91-8828005345