Drones airdrop enemy bugs on harmful insects in crops

drones harmful insects

Uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) have been widely used to treat agricultural crops throughout the world, and spray against disease-carrying pests like mosquitos. Now researchers are expanding trial use of drones to control harmful insects by dropping enemy species on them.

Bug vs. bug crop protection technique delivered by drone

The use of bug against bug is not new, but is expanding in terms of degree and sophistication, according to a report in the June edition of the Entomological Society of America’s Journal of Economic Entomology. DroneDJ has written about other drone applications in the battle against harmful insects, but not the research now gaining speed in North America. That involves deploying specialized agricultural craft to drop natural enemies of destructive pests in appropriate situations, and thereby limit or entirely eliminate the need for traditional insecticides.

The technique could have bigger payoffs than most observers might suspect. Harmful insects inflict more than $100 billion in damage to crops each year in the US alone. Agriculture’s lucrative organic sub-sector is particularly vulnerable, since rules determining what can be sold as naturally grown are generally strict, but particularly draconian when it comes to pesticides. So specialists are looking to multiply applications of their equation “harmful pests + enemy insects = fewer bugs all around.”

Reports on research in Canada, for example, describe how drones dropped rival species on harmful pests in crops – the former group known as biological controllers, or biocontrols. One of those trials involved spreading the eggs of parasitoid wasps amid destructive insects in an area of cornfields and spruce trees. Once the wasps hatched and came of reproductive age, they laid their eggs in those of the unwanted bugs, eliminating the next generation of devourers before they could even take wing.

That test led the experiment to be widened to forests, a setting previous testing seemed to indicate was too dense for payload-dropping drones to be effective. Teaming up with Quebec agricultural UAV service company Canopée, however, researchers discovered craft specially adapted to scatter parasitoids were at least as effective in releasing those insects as manual approaches, and could treat far wider areas than humans could on foot.

Drone success against harmful insects in crops expanded to forests

Attention is now being shifted on teaching drones to identify harmful insects in wooded areas. The hope is they can do so in the same way they can now monitor wildlife or locate rare plants in natural setting, and use thermal or hyperspectral images to analyze types of insects in agricultural fields.

That latter activity has been key to growers spotting pest infestations just as they begin, allowing them to apply smaller volumes of insecticides exclusively to effected areas. The use of seeing and discerning drones, for example, has been efficient in destroying nests of oriental moths, an invasive insect that damages fruit trees.

Specialist also worked with the US Department of Agriculture to take on Mexican fruit fly infestations that caused serious agricultural damage in Arizona, California, and Texas. In that trial, researchers flew entire swarms of adapted drones – up to 12 at a time – to release sterile fruit flies in Rio Grande citrus groves. The result was a sufficient decrease in their overall population after mating between normal and impotent bugs failed to produce offspring. 

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