Like so many technological innovations improved upon and perfected by the military, the use of unmanned drones in agricultural production presents an intriguing possibility that has a good chance of catching on in the United States.

I read with amazement several recent news articles about the research being conducted by the Yamaha Motor Corp. USA and ag engineers at the University of California-Davis.  Imagine some day in the not too distant future utilizing 200-pound motorcycle-sized pilotless helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft to apply products to fields.

To Americans the scenario might seem mindboggling but the fact is that drones have been in use in Japan for the last 20 years. The government introduced them into the Japanese agricultural industry to address an aging farming population. There are more than 2,500 Yamaha RMAX helicopters in use over 2.5 million acres of rice fields in the country. Pilotless choppers are also well on their way to being approved for use in Australia, mainly for weed control. 

Agricultural research on uses of unmanned aircraft is becoming more visible throughout the United States. At Michigan State University, for example, scientists are exploring how they can be used for various agricultural activities, including surveying fields; crop health and watering; bringing out pesticides and fertilizers or other beneficial substances; and herding or searching for animals.

Which brings me back to the promising research conducted at a UC Davis vineyard in Oakville where Ken Giles, professor of agricultural engineering at the university, showed off to the media last month one of those RMAX vehicles in test flights that revealed surgical and lightning-fast movements over the vineyards. Similar testing began at the vineyard as far back as November.

In conducting such flights, Giles and his team are gathering data and researching the feasibility of the unmanned helicopters for pesticide use.  In the tests performed last month the flights used water instead of pesticides.  The Federal Aviation Administration forbids pesticide applications from pilotless helicopters because they view them as “experimental” vehicles. UC Davis is one of five universities in the U.S. researching the use of the helicopters for agricultural purposes.  But Davis is the only university considering them for pesticide spraying. The FAA has approved a permit for Davis to conduct its experiments.

Data collected in the Oakville tests so far indicate the helicopter is providing thorough coverage across the vineyard and that the air currents created by the rotors cause the spray to reach even the undersides of the grapevine leaf canopy. The RMAX is equipped with one 8-liter tank on either side of the fuselage, giving it the capacity to carry slightly more than 4 gallons of liquid before having to be refilled. At full spray it can operate for about 10 to 15 minutes and cover about four to 12 acres per hour, which makes it obviously faster than a tractor. The helicopter is operated by a two-person team – a controller and spotter – who must pass written tests and be FAA certified.

Valuable tool

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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