(Beyond Pesticides, April 4, 2013) As drones have entered civilian life through police surveillance, commercial entrepreneurs are increasingly looking into innovative ways that they may be used for agricultural purposes, particularly for early signs of disease detection and aerial imaging of fields for farmers, but also for application of pesticides.
Drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states, largely resulting from concerns that the technology would be misused, abusing citizens’ privacy. These would prevent police from using drones for public surveillance. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is projected to allow the flight of “unmanned aircraft systems,” drones, for commercial use by September 2015.
Currently, civilians that are allowed to use drones include only government agencies and public universities that receive permits from the FAA. Despite current restrictions, FAA estimates that with increased public acceptance there could be as many as 7,500 civilian drones in use within the next five years. In full agreement, is the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents drone manufacturers, estimates the total economic impact of the technology to be $13.6 billion within three years of its release as a commercial product.
In part, universities have played a pivotal role in launching these technologies by researching ways that they may be used in the agricultural sector. Land grant universities in particular have become interested in aerial imaging of fields and monitoring of airborne plant pathogens. For plant pathogens, researchers at Virginia Tech have been researching drone use in the field to determine the presence of certain microbes that cause disease. Advocates maintain that learning about the presence of microbes like fusarium, a fungus that decimates wheat and barley, could be instrumental in catching disease before they spread to the entire crop. Similarly, aerial imaging of fields could provide high resolution images to farmers on which parts of their fields require tending.
Unfortunately, it also represents a new way for farmers to apply toxic pesticides to fields. While manufacturers tout the reduction of exposure to farm workers, they do not address the widespread aerial use of pesticides, a technique that is prone to pesticide drift, causing environmental contamination and degradation, with associated human health impacts. Given that pesticides can drift even when applied from a truck or a handheld applicator, it is not surprising that research finds that up to 40% of pesticide spray is lost to drift during aerial applications. Even when used correctly, aerial pesticide spraying is notorious for drifting off-site, as many pesticides are easily picked up by wind currents. Pesticide labels also often give inadequate information and unenforceable guidelines for applicators to reduce pesticide drift.
While the use of remotely operated drones certainly has the potential to give farmers better information about the health of their crops and how weeds and disease impact their crops, there is understandable concern that drones might eventually be used as pesticide applicators.
For more information on least-toxic weed management please visit our Invasive Weed Management page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides