One of the fastest moving new agricultural technologies is spray drones. Hardly a month goes by without some sort of new capability, some new features. It’s truly an exciting space to watch.
As with all things, there are good news and bad news to share. First the good news.
Drone capacity is on the rise. The early drones shipped with hoppers of 8 to 10 litres. Part of the reason was to keep weight below 25 kg. Below this weight, pilot licensing requirements and flight restrictions are easier. Anyone with a Basic RPAS license (RPAS is the official term for drones, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) can operate drones up to 25 kg. Above this weight, one requires an Advanced license, which is much more difficult to obtain. Current drones like the DJI T40 have a hopper capacity of 40 L, allowing more area to be covered per flight.
Swath widths are increasing with drone size. The limiting factor for electric drones is still battery power. Flight times of 15 to 20 minutes are possible, depending on the ferrying distance. As a result, larger drones don’t necessarily fly longer, but they spray wider, up to a claimed 30 feet for the DJI T30, and 36 feet for the T40.
Atomizers are improving. The trusty flat fan nozzle certainly works on a drone, but its proper operation depends on spray pressure. And spray pressure is not currently reported by drones. Instead, their application software relies on flow rate, and pressure is adjusted in the background in response to changes in travel speed, swath width, or nozzle size. Although drone flow meters are remarkably accurate, the operator could inadvertently operate the drone at a pressure that produces the wrong spray quality for the conditions.
Enter the rotary atomizer. Long a darling of the thinking applicator, these atomizers use centrifugal energy to create a spray with a tighter span, meaning fewer fine and fewer large droplets. Spray quality still depends on pressure-generated flow rate, but droplet size can additionally be altered with rotation speed. This means that if a faster travel speed increases the spray pressure, the effect on spray quality can be counteracted with a changed rotational speed to keep everything more uniform.
Hybrid systems are entering the market. Rotary wings allow for precise positioning of aircraft and they provide downwash that helps spread the spray pattern out. Downwash also improves canopy penetration and could reduce drift, like air-assist, if used properly. But rotary wings use a lot of energy, limiting battery life. When flown at the wrong height or speed, deposit patterns, drift, and swath width will change. That has to be managed and requires experience.
In comparison, hybrid drones have fixed wings for flight and rotary wings for take-off and landing. The rotors just rotate into the position needed at the time. Fixed wing drones will fly faster, possibly improving capacity and also reducing the effect of the downwash. These systems are new, and much needs to be learned before we understand their various characteristics. But they offer a nice avenue into more productivity.
Drones are multi-purpose. Virtually all drones have interchangeable wet and dry hoppers so they can be used to apply dry nutrients or seed as needed. That makes them quite versatile. But the newest spray drones have scouting-quality cameras on board and can be asked to take high resolution images while they’re spraying. At the end of the mission, a very detailed picture of the crop emerges, with much higher resolution than the higher-elevation scouts produce. Other sensors on the drones can be used for variable rate application of nutrients, or even for spot spraying weed patches.
Now for the bad news. It’s still not legal to apply mainstream pesticides using drones in Canada, and it may stay that way for a while yet.
Pesticide application by drones remains illegal in Canada. The main reason is that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has declared drones to be unique application method, separate from ground sprays and aerial sprays from piloted aircraft. This has triggered the need for risk assessment data for spray drift, efficacy, bystander exposure, crop residue. It’s a fair decision – drones produce finer sprays than any other existing system, they potentially use lower water volumes by necessity, and they create a less predictable deposit due to rotor downwash. The majority of current pesticide formulations are designed for 5 to 10 gpa, this creates a certain concentration of surfactants and products that interact with plant surfaces or that change the potency of drift. Altering this by a factor of 5 can have undesirable outcomes. Yes, aircraft also use lower volumes, but more in the area of 2 to 5 gpa. Drones could cut that in half again, and that warrants study.
Registrants haven’t rushed to study drones. Most major manufacturers of pesticides have a small drone program to get their feet wet, and most have applied for Research Authorization (RA) from the PMRA to study them. But the decision to register a drone use for a pesticide has much to consider. Is it worth it to generate the required dataset for the regulators? Will drones amount to a lucrative new market for product? Do we have the resources and expertise to service this new market? The answers to such questions are clearly complex and much remains unknown. The registrants’ caution is understandable.
There may be a small portfolio of available products. Anyone thinking that a fleet of inexpensive, nimble drones will replace their ground sprayer is banking on the registration of the products they need in their operatioin by the registrants. The most likely products to be registered are fungicides, for which drones would offer several advantages in canopy penetration and spraying in tight time windows due to, say, wet weather.
Another obvious use is in industrial vegetation management where rough terrain or remote locations make it difficult to use wheeled sprayers. Or vector control with larvicides, which, incidentally, comprise the first pesticide registrations for drones in Canada (two microbial mosquito larvicides were approved for drone use in October 2022).
But it seems unlikely in the short term that a producer would have their pick of products to apply by drone anytime soon. And this means that a drone would remain a supplemental tool on the farm, not the main workhorse.
Regulatory hurdles are substantial. Not only is a pilot required to be licensed to use drones, a pesticide application also requires a Specialized Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). In general, SFOCs are required if:
- you are a foreign operator (i.e., not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident);
- you want to fly at a special aviation event or an advertised event;
- you want to fly closer to a military airport;
- you want to fly your drone beyond visual line-of-sight;
- your drone weighs over 25 kg;
- you want to fly your drone at higher altitudes;
- you want to fly your drone carrying dangerous or hazardous payloads (e.g. chemicals);
- you want to fly more than five drones at the same time.
SFOC applications are fairly easy to fill out. Aside from identifying the drone and the pilot, the application needs the purpose of the mission, the location of the mission, and the time period of the mission. The problem is that it may take up to 30 days to hear back for simple missions, 60 days for complex mission. And if the SFOC is not granted, you can’t fly. You can’t decide to spray a field at the last minute.
The news is clearly a mixed bag. We have it all – exciting technology, obvious niche in the marketplace, significant regulations, slow process. In the meantime, spray drones are legal to purchase and relatively inexpensive. And we know they are being purchased. Canada doesn’t have a strong compliance system within the PMRA, so it’s hard to know how much pesticide spraying is being done illegally, or how perpetrators will be treated by the law.
The reputation of the industry once again rests with hope that good decisions are being made by conscientious individuals.