Research continues into the use of drones for large-scale pest control within the agricultural sector.
Rodents are not just an urban pest management issue, they are a significant pest in agricultural settings, not only causing significant losses to crops but damaging infrastructure such as irrigation pipes. Controlling rodents in such an exposed environment creates different problems to the urban environment, with the sheer scale of the problem creating challenges to actually gain control, and to do so cost effectively.
Of course, of particular concern is the safe use of rodenticides in such an uncontrolled environment, particularly the increased risk of non-target and secondary poisoning. Researchers in Israel have been working on the use of drones for rodent control to solve these issues.
Starting in 2018, the work has focused on using drones and AI technology for both the detection of rodent activity and the application of bait.
At the start of the study, they took aerial photos and tried to identify areas of rodent activity manually, using orthophotos to map the locations and then validate their results by monitoring the field on foot. Using this technique, they were able to identify 70% of rodents’ burrows in the field, which provided the basis for their precision bait application trials using drones.
In the first season, the team applied rodenticide manually to a 7.5m radius around rodent activity areas identified from the aerial photos. Unfortunately, the report lacks specifics on the level of rodent control, merely reporting that the level of rodent activity was low after treatment (high prior to treatment) and that it was lower than surrounding fields using different control techniques. In subsequent seasons, the team moved to a drone application system, which made application significantly more efficient.
The GAYA drone system developed by Alta Innovation for this project scattered the bait over the identified locations of rodent activity. Using this technique, the drone managed to treat a 50-acre field in 45 minutes! It also meant significantly less bait was used – applying only 50 g per application point and assuming 100 application points, the drone would only apply 5 kg of bait. In contrast, general broadcast application would use 60 kg of bait over a 50-acre field.
The system continues to be optimised and is now utilising AI technology to automatically identify areas of rodent activity from drone images. Firstly, accuracyenhanced drones use high-resolution cameras to capture images of the field; secondly, the images are stitched together and a specially developed AI algorithm scans for rodent burrows, activity marks or damage, noting the exact locations; thirdly, a purposebuilt agricultural drone flies along the track distributing poison in the exact locations. This so-called ‘Skipper’ drone is calibrated to distribute the rodenticide at broadcast density, but only exactly where needed. This system uses 10% of the rodenticide used by broadcast baiting, reaching all rodent activity locations, unlike manual baiting.
The benefits of drone technology for rodent control are numerous. Targeted application of rodenticide cuts costs, making GAYA cheaper than broadcast spreading. The GAYA system also allows rodent control to be initiated before damage gets out of control, and keeps rodent populations in check. The immediate and longterm environmental impact of the use of rodenticides is mitigated.
Here in Australia, drone use in rodent control is not so well established. In March 2021, a Queensland farmer was given approval to fly drones in New South Wales to drop poisoned bait to deal with the ongoing mouse plague at the time. The farmer, Roger Woods, is the founder of Drone Commander Australia, a company that operates drones for agricultural purposes. He believes drones could play a significant role in combating rodent problems in the future as they are a less invasive option than driving a vehicle over the crop to disperse bait by hand, as is the current practice.
As the pest industry looks to increase efficiencies and reduce the use of rodenticides as part of a global shift, it could be only a matter of time before drone technology becomes an integral component of rodent control in the rural areas of Australia.
Further reading: Regev, Tomer & Kogel, Ido & Segev, Dekel & Benzion, Benjamin & Muller, Yoav & Motro, Yoav. (2019). Precise Control pf Rodents in Alfalfa Fields Using Drones. Conference paper, 49th California Alfalfa & Grain Symposium, November 19-21, 2019, Reno, Nevada, USA.