California researchers at are teaming up with a Japanese vehicle manufacturer on a project to fly drone helicopters over Napa Valley vineyards to combat insect pests. The unmanned chopper - Yamaha RMAX IIG - has also been used in Australia as well, and farmers in Japan are also using it to spray and seed small areas, such as rice paddies, without affecting neighboring fields. A team at UC Davis recently ran a test flight in the Oakville district of Napa, and plans to expand, according to Wines and Vines.
The goal, according to UC Davis agriculture engineering professor Ken Giles, is to apply granular and liquid pesticides, as well as seeding cover crops and conducting specialized operations that would be too expensive with a larger vehicle. The RMAX IIG only weighs 220 pounds and is operated within the line of sight of the ground-based pilot.
Unmanned vehicles are slowly making their way onto U.S. farms, with similar experiments underway to survey fields to decide when crops are ready to harvest or need fertilizer or water. The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing new rules to allow an expansion of UAVs into civilian airspace by September 2015.