Out of curiosity, I contacted Jeff Vanderbilt, manager of Valley Crop Dusters, Inc., in Westley, to get his take on the feasibility of eventually using such drones in his own business.

“From a safety viewpoint, any time you can use unmanned planes and helicopters it cuts down on the possibility of pilots being killed while making aerial applications,” he said. “So this is a big plus.”  However, he said he’d prefer to reserve judgment until all the tests are in so he could compare the results to those of traditional aerial application methods. “If they can contain the volume of chemicals we now use and apply them in a timely and cost-effective manner, then they might represent a new tool for agricultural usage.”

Eventually, the UC Davis research team plans to perform application tests with commonly used agricultural chemicals. They will explore how well the helicopter compares to a tractor-drawn spray rig in terms of operator safety, efficiency and cost. They are also going to expand the test flights into some Central Valley almond orchards.

UC Davis professor Giles noted to news reporters that hillside slopes are actually hazardous for operators of ground rigs, so when you compare spray operations, the drone aircraft brings a new vehicle that can provide an element of aerial safety that ground operators lack.

 “From the viewpoint of agriculture, we are looking at this as a way to improve the productivity and ultimately reduce the need for a lot of crop inputs,” Giles told the media. “This type of vehicle allows you to do treatment and inspection of agricultural fields on a very focused basis.” For example, he said, if there is a small area within a vineyard that needs a treatment for pests for something similar, unmanned aircraft can do it very efficiently.”

So, in my estimation, this research is worth keeping an eye on.  It promises to add yet another valuable tool in the process of food production and in general agriculture. Specific protocol for operation of unmanned aircraft could be adopted by the FAA as early as September 2015, experts estimate. If and when this happens, you can expect pest control applicators togo into the business, buy the proper equipment and then provide the service to growers. Seems like a win-win situation all around.

 

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