Drones for weed management has become increasingly important in the backdrop of sustainable crop production, uncertain climatic patterns and food security concerns in Pakistan. Due to diverse agro-climatic conditions of Pakistan, 267 weed species have been identified that cause monetary loss worth 3 billion US$ annually. Out of these, approximately 160 have been reported as weeds in Punjab; of which 50 are serious weeds causing major economic losses in major field crops. Weed competition for resources, interference with crops, weed-related increased incidence of pests and diseases in different crops, and high management costs incurred in controlling weeds make weed management a critical task for the farmers. Haphazard and indiscriminate herbicide use is alarming due to evolution of herbicide resistance, and potentially harmful impacts of synthetic chemicals on the environment. Moreover, labor shortage, higher wages, weed population shifts, changing climatic optima, unavailability of proper and timely inputs, ever increasing threats of invasive weeds, lack of knowledge and training regarding herbicides, and the poor financial resources of the small land holders are major hurdles towards effective weed management in Pakistan. These multi-dimensional problems need holistic line of action with multi-disciplinary collaboration, and introduction of cutting-edge technologies to cope with modern day challenges.

Weed management approaches targeting weed plants individually or in patches are more cost-effective and sustainable. Site-specific weed management is a technique under precision agriculture that acknowledges the inter- and intra-field variations in weed populations, and limits the herbicide application only to areas with weeds instead of uniform application across the whole field. The first step towards site specific weed management is identifying and mapping the weeds. Aerial (unmanned aerial vehicles), ground-based visual estimation, and GIS and remote sensors can be used to create weed maps, and soil type to map some weeds directly. The second step is the determination of weed control strategies based on weed identification and distribution pattern.

The recent decision of Punjab Government to introduce drones in agriculture sector is appreciable in this regard. Drones equipped with hyper spectral, multispectral, or thermal sensors can identify any part of field, and will be major breakthrough in Pakistani agriculture in areas of crop and weed mapping and monitoring, soil and field survey, predictive modeling, pest scouting, pesticide application, and irrigation management etc. Moreover, drones will also be helpful in managing natural disasters like storms, floods and earth quacks without risking human lives. The advent of such new technologies in era of computers and electronics will revolutionize the contemporary agriculture in Pakistan. Fortunately, educated youth receptive to such technologies can be a potential change agent for the future farming.

There may be some ethical and social implications when dealing with agricultural drones. There is a concern for the potential of one’s privacy to be violated, which in turn may cause some opposition towards drones. Nevertheless, this is a whole new level of technology that needs to be embraced to foster agricultural development in the country. Definitely, technological and legislative adjustments can be made to frame Pakistan’s agricultural drone’s policy and its regulations must include the domestic use for flying and licensing of drones for agricultural purposes. The future for this technology looks promising and knowledge of drones should be imparted to weed scientists and crop consultants so that they can use this technology in developing decision-making tools. Creating awareness among all the stakeholders regarding this technology through trainings and workshops is required to benefit crop production in Pakistan.

This article is collectively authored by Amar Matloob, Asif Ali Khan Muhammad Nawaz Shareef University of Agriculture, Multan