Drone releasing beneficials

Sep 3, 2019
California drone company releases beneficial insects

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Drones and insects have a lot in common: spindly appendages, buzzing noises, flight – and the ability to significantly impact fruit and vegetable crops. A California startup company is pairing the two as a service marketed at growers of high-value crops.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Intelligence (UAV-IQ) will drop the insects from drones throughout a farm. Beneficial insects are a cutting-edge and growing part of specialty crops agriculture, especially for organic growers. Drones can make dispersal more precise and efficient than hand application, said CEO Andreas Neuman, a U.S. Air Force veteran who once worked in the Global Hawk program.

UAV-IQ has already been testing its devices on high-value crops, Neuman said.

“We’re looking to do more in tree nuts and tree fruit,” he added.

UAV-IQ Strawberry 4
A drone disperses beneficial insects on a strawberry field. The beneficial insects are picked up the morning of dispersal, and drones are launched from the side of the field, right.
Photos: UAV-IQ

The beneficial insects themselves are the biggest cost, he said. There is an additional expense of about $20 an acre for the service of the drone.

The beneficial insects are being provided by the U.S. arm of Dutch-owned Koppert company, which has offices in Michigan’s Howell as well as Oxnard, California. Koppert markets a wide range of pollination and beneficial insects for a variety of fruit crops including apples, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries.

Drone and beneficials
A drone with containers of beneficial insects prior to launch.

Koppert marketing specialist Martin Walasek said strawberry growers would be most excited about the potential to airdrop beneficial insects. Koppert’s Spidex product consists of predatory mites that devour two-spotted spider mites and their eggs.

“They love that stuff,” Walasek said. “They land on the plant, feel it out, find the spider mites, and go to town.” Spidex was one of the first products developed in 1967 by Koppert’s founder, a cucumber grower in the Netherlands. Walasek said the company more recently studied flight patterns and the best dispersal rates for applying Spidex by drone.

As a pest, two-spotted spider mites feed on strawberry leaves and calyxes, often appearing as stippling, scarring or bronzing, according to a webpage of the University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. The mites’ feeding is particularly damaging during the first two to five months after crowns are transplanted in summer and fall. Their highest numbers are often following the peak of spring fruit harvest.

To prepare for the service, Neuman said a grower should have a pest management agent visit the property – something that’s typically done for free.

Once there’s a prescription plan in place for the field, the visit can be scheduled, usually about one week in advance. An online tool allows clients to circle areas of their fields that may need more attention.

On the morning of the release, UAV-IQ picks up the insects and arrives at the field about 6:30-8 a.m.

“All we really need is access to the field,” Neuman said. Workers can’t be in the field during the dispersal, but during the course of a daylong large job, drone operators can work around them. Dispersal can last half a morning to a full day – a time savings for what can be an intensive process.

“We’ve replaced teams of 10 people with a single drone,” he said. A drone can cover as many as 150 acres in a day’s work.

The service this season is being offered primarily in California, although Neuman said he plans to offer it out-of-state early next year.

“We’ve gotten a fair amount of interest outside California,” he said.

– Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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