Expert opinion

Sprayer drones making headway in Canada

Potential agronomic, health, and human resource advantages drive investment from the Canadian drone industry.

Drones are used for spray applications in many countries, but are not yet commercially commonplace in Canada. However, interest in potential agronomic, health, and human resource advantages continue to drive investment from industry.

But hurdles still exist – particularly when it comes to the practicality of drones on Canada’s many large-acreage farms.

“From a best management practice standpoint, we shouldn’t be spraying parts of the field if we don’t need to,” says Chuck Baresich, general manager of Haggerty Creek Ltd, a crop inputs and marketing company based in Southwestern Ontario.

A useful tool for ag-service providers

As custom service providers, Baresich and his colleagues have been looking into drone sprayers for several years. They see the technology as a (potentially) cost-effective and agronomically-sensible tool, and have first-hand experience test-driving different designs.

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Gaining the ability to apply pesticides with much greater precision – while reducing crop damage and soil compaction – add to the potential of drone tech. - Photo: Zoomlion
Gaining the ability to apply pesticides with much greater precision – while reducing crop damage and soil compaction – add to the potential of drone tech. - Photo: Zoomlion

On a basic environmental level, too, Baresich believes gaining the ability to apply pesticides with much greater precision – while reducing crop damage and soil compaction – add to the potential of drone tech. Their interest also stems from the potential cost-savings drones could provide.

Strategic spraying can be accomplished with ground application equipment, but that equipment still must be driven into the field. In his experience, too, farmers and custom operator customers prefer to keep product flowing since. The thinking being, “if you’re there anyway, might as well put something on.”

Chuck Baresich, Haggerty Creek Ltd

We could theoretically send the drone out and do zero crop damage and spray only where we need to

For custom applicators, Baresich says both factors are issues. “[We’re] out there for the same amount of time but spraying way less. We could theoretically send the drone out and do zero crop damage and spray only where we need to,” he says.

Other ways to reduce costs

In his own experience, Baresich says the drones he has looked at range anywhere from $ 7,000 to $ 50,000 per unit. If the number of work hours squeezed from these units are comparable to those of larger self-propelled sprayers, cost-savings should be inevitable.

Indeed, the costs of self-propelled machines are enough that Baresich and his colleagues often opt to augment and update old machines rather than look to the new. In such cases, they wonder if small fleets of drones could be purchased for the same price.

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Chuck Baresich: "There are lots of people who can get a pilot’s license to fly a drone. The same person driving the drone could do different things as well […] It’s not eliminating a person, just changing what they’re doing.
Chuck Baresich: "There are lots of people who can get a pilot’s license to fly a drone. The same person driving the drone could do different things as well […] It’s not eliminating a person, just changing what they’re doing.

Finding qualified operators a challenge

As the size and weight of machinery continues to swell, Baresich says finding qualified operators can be a challenge. But most drones can be transported via pickup, while pre-programmed flight operations and built-in safeguards can reduce the risk of human-derived error. These factors could bring savings from a human resources perspective.

“There are lots of people who can get a pilot’s license to fly a drone,” says Baresich. “The same person driving the drone could do different things as well […] It’s not eliminating a person, just changing what they’re doing. The whole opening of the labour pool thing I think is underrated.”

The cost-saving potential of drone units compared to traditional sprayer equipment has in fact been a driving force behind some drone models. Forward Robotics Inc., a drone company also based in the province of Ontario, specifically designed its plane-like drone design – called the U7AG – to be price competitive with larger pull-behind sprayer units (around $ 50,000 Cdn).

Still not a miracle solution

Common problems still plague drone sprayer tech, though. Scalability for Canada’s large farms – particularly in the prairie provinces – being a major one.

Drones generally can’t hold a lot of liquid, for example, meaning more frequent refill stops. Having to premix the entire solution for quick refilling might also be a challenge in some circumstances.

Differences in mapping can be an issue too. Baresich says this is because many drone technologies rely on more generic images (often derived from Google maps) compared to those used by agronomists and service operators.

In such cases the boundaries and areas within the field may not line up. This means the field must be measured again, adding another step to the overall process.

Downdraft

Additionally, he says drone wings generate downdraft, which is good for applying some chemicals – but not others. There are also instances where downdraft can harm more fragile crops such as grapes and tenderfruit (common crops in many of Canada’s milder regions).

Other issues include relatively limited range when it comes to power, as well as significant drift concerns.

Jason Deveau, Ontario provincial agriculture ministry

There are big questions surrounding drones in horticulture. Broad acre applications are highly unlikely. Possibly spot sprays

“We’re still working to find a fit for it in agriculture,” said Jason Deveau, application technology specialist with Ontario’s provincial agriculture ministry. “There are big questions surrounding drones in horticulture. Broad acre applications are highly unlikely. Possibly spot sprays.”

Spray droplets size

Spray technology experts in Saskatchewan, too, say the fact that drone payload is relatively small (often between 15 to 24 kg depending on the unit) means spray droplets size must drop to achieve the required coverage.

This antagonises efforts to reduce drift, which depends on using coarser droplets at higher volumes. Again, this might not be a concern for a 300 acre farm, but it will be for one 3,000 or 30,000 acres strong.

And to top it off, experts say fine droplets are also “prone to the aerodynamic eccentricities of aircraft.”

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Forward Robotics specifically designed its plane-like drone design – called the U7AG – to be price competitive with larger pull-behind sprayer units (around $50,000 Cdn).  - Photo: Forward Robotics
Forward Robotics specifically designed its plane-like drone design – called the U7AG – to be price competitive with larger pull-behind sprayer units (around $50,000 Cdn). - Photo: Forward Robotics

Designs variable and numerous

Of course, efforts are being made to eliminate this problem through improved designs. Meng Wei, chief executive officer for the aforementioned Forward Robotics Inc., says the U7AG incorporates larger droplets (medium and coarse) and a fixed-wing schematic to reduce drift issues.

“Fixed wing aircraft have different air fluid patters,” he says. “[It’s] more like a traditional aircraft, thus fitting with traditional aircraft spray regulations.”

Shorter refill times

But larger droplets mean liquid is used more quickly, and there are tank capacity limits to consider. For this reason, and rather than trying to incorporate a larger tank, Wei says they are focusing on shortening refill times and refining manouverability. Currently, he says the U7AG can refill in about 1 minute. The overall goal is to commercialise a craft suitable for use on larger acerage Canadian farms.

Forward Robotics and others are also anxiously awaiting regulatory requirements from Canada’s federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and whether their models – designed specifically to address all potential concerns – fit the docket.

Large potential

Regardless, Baresich believes the potential for drone sprayers in Canada is large. “I’ve seen with first-hand experience […] the technology can work,” he says, adding he does not think drones will completely replace ground application.

On a personal level, I’d have to agree. On our relatively small farm, I can’t imagine we will scrap the tow-behind sprayer tank – but that doesn’t mean we would never invest in a comparatively inexpensive drone for spot-spraying.

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