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Using drones to apply plant protection products efficiently and minimize their environmental impact

Dron flying over Raimat’s vineyards.

PhytoDron, an operational group of which IRTA is part, aims to promote and regulate the use of drones for applying plant protection products, thus contributing to fulfilling the goals of the European Green Deal

Compared to other means of applying such products, drones are more suitable for small plots of land, areas that are difficult to access and mountainous terrain, but more needs to be known about their effectiveness and the drift they entail

The first study of the use of drones to apply plant protection products took place in vineyards located in Raimat, Lleida, on 2 March

In agriculture, plant protection products ― chemical agents for preventing and curing disease in plants and keeping them free of pests ― are key to obtaining quality foodstuffs and ensuring the technical and economic viability of food production. However, their use can contribute to soil, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss. With that in mind, in 2020 the European Commission established a target of a 50% reduction in the use and risk of chemical pesticides as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, an essential component of the European Green Deal. One way that could be achieved is through precision farming, with plant protection products being applied in a localized and more efficient manner, thus lessening their environmental impact. In that regard, drone technology could be a good means of applying plant protection products efficiently and minimizing the risks they involve.

At present, however, the use of drones to apply such products is considered to be a form of aerial application, like the use of light aircraft or helicopters, and aerial application is subject to stricter regulations than ground-based application.The Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA) is part of PhytoDron, a Spanish operational group seeking to generate data on and knowledge about the use of drones as a safe means of applying plant protection products in vineyards and olive groves and in agroforestry, and to make headway in relation to the framework governing their use.

Dron a les vinyes de Raimat.
Dron in the vineyards of Raimat.

Compared to some alternative means of applying chemical products, drones have proven to be better suited to small plots of land, areas that are difficult for some vehicles to access and mountainous terrain,” says Luis Asín, leader of IRTA’s Fruit Farming programme. However, it is necessary to “find out more about their effectiveness for applying plant protection products, study different application methods and the effects of wind and vehicle speed, and assess the drift involved,” he adds. With the aim of doing so, a first study of application using drones was carried out in vineyards in Raimat in Lleida on 2 March as part of the PhytoDron project.

The PhytoDron operational group was established in March 2021 and its project is scheduled to run until March 2023. The expected results of its work include the acceptance of drones as a new means of applying plant protection products, the generation of the knowledge necessary for the application of such products using drone technology to be reclassified as ground-based rather than aerial application, and a reduction in the number of aerial application requests as envisaged in European regulations. “All that will make it possible to apply treatments precisely and at the most appropriate time,” remarks Asín.

There are two other research centres besides IRTA in PhytoDron, namely Neiker and Spain’s National Institute for Agricultural and Food Research and Technology (INIA-CSIC). The operational group also includes three companies: BASF, Syngenta and Corteva Agriscience; two universities: the University of Seville and the Technical University of Madrid; three associations of farmers: DeCoop, Baskegur and the Wine Technology Platform (PTV); the Business Association for Plant Protection (AEPLA); the Official Association of Agronomists of Central Spain and the Canary Islands; and Spain’s National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (INSST).