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Haryana’s first female drone pilot has admirers all the way from Japan, US

Karnal: A group of around 25 farmers in Haryana’s Karnal district shuffled into the field to see what promised to be a glimpse into the new world — drones that would sprinkle pesticide on their crops.

They had many questions for Nisha Solanki, the state’s first certified woman drone pilot who was explaining the inner workings of the technology and its advantages over manual spraying of pesticides.

The farmers gathered around the drone resting innocuously on the grass. It looked like a miniature aircraft.

“Madamji, should we lift it on our shoulders and throw it away?” one farmer piped in. Everyone started laughing at Solanki who met their gaze without flinching under the rim of her blue cap.

The 25-year-old got her Remote Pilot License (RPL) in March 2022 from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

Having come up the hard way, battling prejudices against young girls in Haryana who dare to dream differently, Nisha Solanki isn’t ready to yield even an inch today. She’s only around 5ft tall, but is unfazed by the men.

“I won’t let any boy in my team fly drones,” she said.

The farmers, though, are quite unconvinced if a young woman, and a “short one” at that, can lift and fly a 15kg drone.

“I want to show them that there’s nothing I cannot do,” she laughed.

She filled the drone with water and pesticide and powered it up. And suddenly, the farmers who were making fun of her moments ago were now clapping — their eyes wide, the cynicism replaced by wonder. Now when she began explaining why the drone, which was now gliding in the sky, was a better option to spray pesticides, everyone listened to her carefully.

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Pilot Nisha

As a child, Solanki was obsessed with becoming a pilot, so much so that she would ask everyone to call her ‘Pilot Nisha Solanki’. But her father, a retired Army man, wanted her to pursue a career in agriculture.

Solanki’s career as a drone pilot operator, therefore, is a happy compromise. She is part of the Haryana Kisan Kalyan Pradhikaran (HKVP) drone project under the Maharana Pratap Horticultural University (MHU) in Karnal, and earns Rs 3,000 per drone demonstration. So far, she has demonstrated on 236 farms covering 750 acres of land.

Suraj Bisht / ThePrint
Convincing farmers to adopt new technology is a hurdle, and as a woman, she often faces more resistance.| Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint

In a culture where careers are defined by gender, the choice to be a drone pilot too was one that ‘boys take up’.

“’I may have been born a girl, but mentally I am a boy. My parents never told me that because I was a girl, I could not do this work,” said Solanki.

The civil aviation regulatory body DGCA classifies drones into five categories based on their weight and capabilities. Solanki has a certificate in the small category of rotorcraft and operates drones that weigh between 2-25 kg. These drones are typically used for commercial purposes and require an RPL (Remote Pilot Licence) to operate.

The moment she picks up the remote, Solanki’s demeanour changes. It requires intense concentration and laser-sharp focus. There are three boys in her team, but so far, she has done most of the flying. “My personality is khadoos (grumpy), that’s why boys stay away from me,” she laughed. She instructs them patiently when they do take control of the remote.

Convincing farmers to adopt new technology is a hurdle, and as a woman, she often faces more resistance.

Nityanand, a farmer from Kaumuddi village in Kurukshetra admitted that he initially doubted Solanki’s ability to spray pesticide on his crop. “I was worried she would ruin my crop,” he told ThePrint. But when she manoeuvred the drone with ease, spraying his entire four-acre field in less than seven minutes, he was a convert.

Drones as a vehicle for spraying pesticides have become increasingly popular among farmers in Haryana. The state government is reportedly planning to enlist 1,000 drone pilots for this purpose, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Solanki is proud to be part of this initiative. “I want to show that women are more than just about wearing a veil and sitting in the kitchen cooking meals for men.”

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Public sector guidance, private sector sponsorship 

Nisha Solanki’s encounter with drones was a happy mix of serendipity and refusal to let go of her childhood dreams. She didn’t make the cut-off for aeronautics and enrolled in the College of Agricultural Engineering and Technology, Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University (CCS HAU).

When she took up a job in 2019 as an engineer with the state horticulture department, it looked like she was set for a career in agriculture. But then she encountered her first drone at the Potato Technology Centre in Shamgarh, Karnal, during a demonstration by IoTechWorld Avigation, a drone manufacturing company headquartered in Gurugram.

There, she met Satyendra Yadav, associate director at Maharana Pratap Horticultural University and a certified drone pilot and instructor. He convinced her to complete her MTech and she enrolled at CCS HAU from where she had completed her graduation.

Every weekend, Solanki would travel 200 km from Hisar to Karnal to learn how to operate a drone under Yadav’s tutelage at MHU. In the second year of her Masters programme, she came to Delhi and enrolled in a week-long DGCA course to get her drone certificate. She could not afford the Rs 65,000 fee but Yadav stepped in and was able to convince IoTechWorld to sponsor her, she said.

As a certified drone operator, she joined the MHU project. Yadav, or ‘Doctor sahab’ as Solanki calls him, is exceptionally proud of her achievements.

“Nisha had potential. Today, she has not only broken barriers in the drone industry but is also paving the way for more women to enter the field,” said Yadav. “With her skill and determination, she is proving that gender is no barrier to success in the world of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).”

In May 2022, shortly after earning her certificate, Solanki got to interact with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Bharat Drone Mahotsav in Delhi. The photo of the interaction is her Twitter header.

She recalled the prime minister asking whether using drones for spraying pesticides could help conserve water and how the technology would help farmers.

“In the traditional way, farmers use at least 150-200 litres of water. A drone would use only 10-20 litres,” she said.

One door closes, another opens

But Solanki’s time at MHU is running out. The Haryana Kisan Kalyan Pradhikaran project is due to end in March. The team wants the government to extend the project given their success—they’ve met their demonstration targets a month in advance.

While Yadav supports her and wants Solanki to continue to be a drone pilot, there are hurdles.

She now works on a contractual basis and a stipulation for her contract to be renewed is the presence of an RPTO (Remote Pilot Training Organisation) at her place of work. But MHU does not have one. Yadav said that several requests to the government for permission to set up an RPTO have fallen on deaf ears.

But Solanki is confident that she will land on her feet—the private sector has already started courting her. She said she was offered a spot in IoTechWorld Avigation’s research and development department. However, it’s a verbal commitment for now.

“I wanted to stay here [at MHU], but the government is not listening to our demands,” she said, staring at her drone.

But with one door closing, another has opened. Her glimmer of hope comes from Karnal’s Industrial Training Institute. They are setting up an RPTO and have advertised a post for a drone instructor. Nisha has applied.

Earlier this month, a private delegation from Japan and the US visited Haryana to see how drone technology was being used for agriculture in India. Nisha led the demonstration. The Japanese were particularly impressed with her.

“We cannot predict how high her drone will fly now,” said Yadav.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

Source: The Print

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