Researchers test unmanned aircraft for on-farm uses
Editor's note: The following article was written by Steve Adler, associate editor of Ag Alerrt, a weekly newsletter from the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Source: Steve Adler When farmers approach University of California, Davis, agricultural engineering professor Ken Giles to inquire about an experimental, remote-controlled helicopter being studied as a potential applicator for agricultural chemicals, they only ask two things: How well does it work and how much does it cost?
The short answer is that the results look promising so far.
Giles is the lead university researcher who is partnering with Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, to see how well Yamaha's motorcycle-sized RMAX unmanned helicopter can been used for agricultural purposes in the United States, including aerial applications of agricultural chemicals.
UC Davis has a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to apply treatments with remote-controlled aircraft at the UC Oakville Experimental Vineyard. Field tests using only water applications began last November, and Giles and his team demonstrated the helicopter for reporters last week.
Their tests are among several involving use of unmanned aircraft for agricultural purposes, in California and elsewhere.
Data collected in the Oakville tests so far indicate the helicopter is providing thorough coverage across the vineyard and that the air currents stirred up by the helicopter rotors cause the spray to reach even the undersides of the grapevine leaf canopy, Giles said.
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.
"We are able to cover the vineyard rows at about 12 to 15 miles per hour," said Steve Markofski, a Yamaha business planner and RMAX operator. "Even when factoring in the refill time and so on, the RMAX is very efficient. Given the current spray method, at full spray it can operate for about 10 to 15 minutes. It can cover about four to 12 acres per hour."
Giles added: "It is obviously faster than a tractor."
The FAA regulates use of all remote-controlled aircraft, he said. The aircraft operators—a two-person team of controller and spotter—must be trained and certified by Yamaha and then pass the written private pilot's knowledge test administered by the FAA.
Eventually, the research team plans to conduct 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, cost and efficiency. They also are expanding the test flights to some Central Valley almond orchards.
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