Davis Investigates Using Helicopter Drones For Crop Dusting
Researchers at University of California, Davis, are testing UAV crop
dusting on the Oakville Experimental Vineyard at the UC Oakville Station
using a remote-controlled helicopter. The purpose is to study the
adaptation of Japanese UAV crop dusting techniques for US agriculture,
but not all the hurdles they face are technological.
The use of aircraft for crop dusting and seeding is over a century old,
but it’s not a panacea. Flying aircraft low over farmland is best suited
for areas like the Great Plains of North America, which are flat and
relatively free of obstacles like trees or power lines. In built-up
areas, rugged terrain, or mixed-use regions, it isn't feasible to
distribute chemicals from a plane or helicopter and even under ideal
conditions, flying close to the ground can be hazardous. There’s also
the risk of the pilot and people on the ground being exposed to
If you wanted to find a place not suited to crop dusting, it would be
hard to beat Japan. It’s a mountainous, heavily populated country with
lots of trees and buildings where farms with small fields are
interspersed closely with settlements and all manner of other things
like a semi-rural crazy quilt. But it’s also a country with an aging
population providing fewer young people to work the land, so there’s a
strong imperative to automate as much as possible.
The idea of using drones as crop dusters and seeders may be a novelty in
the West, but in Japan it’s old news. Unmanned helicopters have been on
the job for over 20 years since Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture started
promoting the idea in the 1980s. In 1991, small remote-controlled
helicopters were used to spray rice fields and today UAVs spray 40
percent of the nation’s rice crops. In addition, unmanned helicopters
are used to spray, wheat, oats, soybeans, lotus roots, daikon radishes,
chestnut groves and continues to expand to other kinds of orchards and
There are helicopters currently flying in Japan and through they’re used
mainly for spraying and seeding, they’re also employed in remote
sensing, precision agriculture and frost mitigation.
California agriculture has similar problems to Japan with a some areas
marked by a quilt of small holdings in a complex geography, so since
November 2012 UC Davis has been running a program to adapt Japanese UAV
methods to American needs.
Bringing the UAV agriculture sprayers to the United States has a
number of obvious benefits. It brings a degree of precision to
agriculture over using tractors while removing the hazards of a
low-flying pilot. Pesticides can be applied with greater accuracy, which
reduces not only costs, but also exposure of farm workers as well as
reducing the environmental impact.
Currently, UC Davis is studying the distribution of spray over a
vineyard by spraying colored water over grape vines kitted out with
water-sensitive test paper. The paper shows up water droplets as blue
specks, which can be recorded and analyzed by computer.
Preliminary results show that the helicopter is stable even in gusty
conditions and that the turbulence thrown up by the rotors distributes
the spray even under the leaves. The hope is that the study will
eventually show how safe and efficient helicopter spraying is and how
well it compares to tractor spraying. Another benefit may be
close-quarters crop monitoring with some Napa farmers expressing an
interest in using unmanned helicopters to take images of vineyards to
monitor vine health and determine harvest schedules.
You would think that with decades of Japanese experience we’ll be seeing
helicopters buzzing around the Napa Valley very soon, but not all the
problems revolve around technology. The US government still doesn't
recognize the use of UAVs by civilians and until the law is changed in
2015, they must operate under very severe restrictions. UC Davis as a
limited FAA permit, which very few other universities have, that took
its two pilots five months to obtain.
A UAV can only fly over very specific agricultural areas, cannot operate
within five miles of an airport. the operators must give the FAA 48
hours warning of a flight, and even then it can only fly at below 20
feet (6 m).
UC Davis stresses that the entire vineyard has been declared an
emergency landing area and that the helicopter is designed to hover and
land automatically if it loses its control signal. “This site not only
offers a working-vineyard situation, it also meets all of our federal
requirements for flight zones for remote-controlled aircraft,” says Ken
Giles, a UC Davis agricultural engineering professor and lead researcher
on the project.
Giles also addresses privacy and safety concerns stating, “As a citizen,
I share those reservations and agree that we need to be very careful
about how we use unmanned aircraft. But with the color, size and noise
of a motorcycle, this helicopter that we’re testing is anything but
stealthy and would be a great disappointment to anyone hoping to use it
for espionage or other covert purposes. And, our work is being conducted
with the anticipation that the aircraft would be flown by the landowner
or by someone hired by the landowner. In other words, that person would
want the aircraft to be flying over his or her land.”
If all goes well with the current round of tests, UC Davis plans to
expand the program to almond groves in the California Central valley.
Source: University of California, Davis
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