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The state-owned enterprise roped in Terra Drone India to carry out an aerial survey for crop measurement and assessment.

By Ishveena Singh

More than 80% of the total water used in India is for irrigation purposes. And right now, India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history. According to NITI Ayog’s Composite Water Management Index 2018, more than 600 million Indians across the country are facing acute water shortage.

Alarmed by the drying reservoirs and fast-depleting water table, many states in the country are taking steps to address the crisis, including establishing city-wise water quotas and rationing the use of water for irrigation purposes.

Drought in Maharashtra
Maharashtra state has been grappling with water shortage since 2012. The drought it faced in 2013 was the worst to hit the state in 40 years. The worst-affected include Sangli, Pune, Satara, Beed, Nashik, Solapur, and Ahmednagar – several of which fall in western Maharashtra.

In western Maharashtra, the onus of managing irrigation projects is on the state-owned Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation (MKVDC). To ensure sustainable utilization of freshwater and safeguard the availability of irrigation facility in the tail-end agricultural fields, the MKVDC requires a clear picture of the water being used for food production.

Further, the state government is looking to implement new groundwater extraction rules this year which would make it compulsory to register all existing wells and seek permissions before sinking new wells. Every village would also need to submit cropping patterns to the authorities and notify the government of any intention of sowing a water-intensive crop whose cultivation is restricted by the state.

Challenges of Human-Centric Surveying
Traditionally, crop measurement and assessment has been a human-centric process. However, sending field teams to hundreds of villages for identifying the types of crops being grown and their irrigation source would have been extremely time-consuming. The process would also be prone to manual errors.

Moreover, the agricultural maps that the MKVDC had in its possession were decades-old. These obsolete maps could anyway not be used to determine the precise land under cultivation – especially since the Water Resources Department of the MKVDC needed to make sure no crop was being sown by farmers in areas shown as non-irrigated land to avoid water use charges.

The MKVDC desired a scientific method to map the agricultural land parcels and determine crop patterns in a time-efficient manner. The data collection not only needed to be fast but it also needed to be of the highest quality and accuracy to empower the water resources department with the insights required to ensure optimum water management.

Drones for Smart Water Management
Roping in Terra Drone India as its technology partner, the MKVDC decided to use unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to map the area under irrigation. When it comes to capturing large amounts of detailed mapping data in a short period of time, there is no better technology than drones.

Drones make the entire process of capturing data exponentially faster and more accurate while giving near-real time control over irrigation rotation. Since there is clear evidence in the form of imagery and data points, there is no scope for erroneous data reporting. The processed data helps to inform key decision-making not only in the present but also in the future.

Terra Drone India used fixed-winged drones equipped with visual (RGB) sensors to carry out the survey, acquiring images with 2 cm/pixel resolution. A total of 1,085 villages and farm boundaries were identified and surveyed between March and June 2018.

Since the Water Resources Department also needed precise information about the types of crops being sown and the irrigation methods adopted by the farmers, Terra Drone India deployed field surveying teams which would collect supplemental information and bolster the data acquired by the drones.

By May 2019, Terra Drone India had completed the surveying, meticulous mapping, and processing of the aerial as well as field data for 4,200 sq km in Pune, Satara, Sangli districts.

Shocking Results
The MKVDC was not only able to update its archaic maps with high-precision data in half the time of traditional surveying methods but the enterprise could also now pinpoint the crops sown in 4,200 sq km of land along with the various sources of irrigation being used for the same.

When the aerial images were superimposed on the old maps, it was discovered that in some areas, unirrigated land was now being used for cultivation purposes, while in others, previously fertile land had been converted into settlement areas.

But the most shocking discovery came in the form of crop patterns. Sugarcane, which is one of the most water-intensive crops, was supposed to be growing in only 7,000-8,000 hectares of land in the Satara district, according to the government’s records. However, the drone survey revealed that almost 50,000 hectares were under sugarcane cultivation.

This revelation was important from two aspects:

  • The government was previously not aware of the stress sugarcane cultivation was putting on the water resources in the Satara district.
  • The revenue leakage from this unaccounted-for water use was huge.

According to Vaishali Narkar, Superintending Engineer of Satara Irrigation Circle, till last year, the department was generating Rs 3 crore in revenue from the water released for sugarcane cultivation. Now that the ground truth has been discovered with the help of drone surveys, the Satara Irrigation Circle will be generating around Rs 15-20 crore from the water supplied for sugarcane growth.

In other words, using drones is helping the MKVDC to increase its revenue by more than 400%.

The government enterprise has now decided to regularly use drones to update agricultural boundaries and even wants to make the data available on a mobile app for easy access to the stakeholders.

Why Choose Drones for Water Management

  • Precise information of area irrigated with accurate crop identification
  • Near real-time control on irrigation rotation
  • Easy identification of area irrigated outside of command and on backwaters
  • Improved water use efficiency and increase in revenue through transparency and accountability in water management
  • Clear evidence capture and preservation of data for future use
  • Complete control on the field-staff and unauthorized water use

About the Author

Ishveena Singh is a former journalist who has worked with several national and international media outlets, including The Miami Herald, The Times of India, Microsoft’s MSN, and Geospatial World. In her present role as a brand strategist and digital marketer, she heads marketing and communication strategies at Terra Drone India.