Chopper drones developing ag uses

While bigger than a man, the Yamaha Rmax is still not a full-sized aerial spray unit. It is now licensed for use in the U.S. and there is interest in Canadian agriculture as well.  |  Yamaha photo

Drones can deliver pizzas and perform military strikes — and now Yamaha helicopters can spray pesticides and fertilizer in the U.S.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approved the use of drone helicopters for pesticide application May 1, and the first unit is now spraying in California orchards and vineyards.

These aren’t the small battery-powered hand-launch helicopters with cameras strapped to their bellies. Instead, they are 207 pound Yamaha choppers powered by two-stroke and four-stroke gasoline engines with payload capacities of 35 to 53 lb.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of liquid payload for prairie farms, but it may be a significant first step to-ward full size remote controlled spray copters capable of carrying 800 gallons just like today’s largest spray planes.

Steve George of the Federal Flight Administration’s unmanned aircraft integration office of in Washington, D.C., said the licensing of larger unmanned aircraft for agriculture is closer than many people think.

“The Yamaha helicopter can carry payloads of herbicide and fertilizer,” he said.

“It’s a neat platform, but an eight foot machine has caused several fatalities in other parts of the world. The Rmax has been used (safely) a lot in Japan and Australia.”

George said the larger machines highlight the need for an airworthiness certificate, which is standard in other aircraft.

Current Canadian and interim American legislation allows for most unmanned aerial vehicles to receive licences without inspection.

He said receiving approval for the larger units will take more time and research, but a few companies, including Yamaha, are moving in that direction.

“Trimble has submitted an application for a geospacial mapping with its small, fixed wing UAV. There are others in the works,” George said.

“We have 350 exemption requests in the cue this year. This could be an $82 billion business in North America and deliver 150,000 jobs, so government is very interested in this new industry.

Safety remains a big concern.

“There are 400 regulation standards that have to be met to certify a plane. We likely don’t need the whole thing for a UAV, as a lot have to do with having people on board. It is a big concern for us, though. How do we ensure protection of people and property on the ground?” he said.

“We have to balance regulations that don’t consider people in the air.”

Experts say a full-sized big-drone chopper prototype is far into the future. For now, the American license applies to one medium-sized Rmax helicopter owned by Yamaha and operated by researchers at the University of California.

The university has already been running application trials with the Rmax for three years, strictly under experimental terms rather than commercial conditions. It sprayed only water.

This first FAA application license has spawned more than 200 commercial and research applications to lease and operate the Rmax sprayers. Yamaha makes it clear that approval of any applications is solely in the hands of the FAA.

The company will only lease its drones for the near future, but plans to make them available for sale once they are being used responsibly.

Yamaha has more experience with this niche technology than anyone else in the world, considering its first commercial remote controlled helicopters hit the home market in 1991. Since then, the company’s UAVs have logged more than two million flight hours.

Japanese farmers use 2,600 Yamaha remote controlled helicopters to apply pesticides to 2.4 million acres, which is one-third of the country’s rice field.

The meager payload eliminates the Rmax from contention in prairie wheat fields, but the machine is well suited for the rolling California hills and valleys where the lucrative wine industry is based. Many of these areas are difficult to access with a conventional spray plane, said Yamaha’s Steve Markofski.

The terrain presents a challenge. No pilot is on board, but farm workers are on the ground, which makes safety a primary concern. For that reason, the FAA will continue to monitor safety and performance of the project.

“If our helicopter loses the radio signal, it will stop and hover and wait for a re-connect,” Markofski said.

“It does not have a return home function.”

The machine is programmed to gradually descend straight down if the signal doesn’t come back.

“The only issue is that it will land where it’s going to land. We have no control over that,” he said.

“That’s why we only fly over agricultural areas, areas with no major human population. And we only fly with full visual contact.”

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