By Nathanel Apter (08.13.2021)

On the 6th of July 2021, the Drone Industry Association Switzerland published its report on the Swiss Drone Industry. The report predicts that the size of the drone market in Switzerland will reach 435 millions CHF in 2021. Overall the drones are used in many different areas as construction, delivery, energy, education, science, health care, search and rescue, information and motion picture, insurance, public administration, transportation, and agriculture. The market developed rapidly and most of the companies in the Swiss Drone Ecosystem were created in the past 5 years.

Since 2017, a rather interesting use case in agriculture evolved in which many companies have now started providing services. The use case aims at providing pesticides treatments on cultures and especially vineyards.

Some other drone spray applications were tested as the usage of coloring agents for greenhouse shading or enzymes to clean roofs. None of those seem so far to show a potential as the one of drones used for pesticides treatments.

For the application of pesticides on vineyards, the past few years have shown that the benefits could be substantial. In Switzerland there are about 15’000 ha of vineyards of which 4500 ha lie on steep slopes which are very difficult to access for the winemaker. Those cultures need frequent treatment with pesticides depending on the humidity between May and mid-august. Those treatments are needed to protect grapes from fungal diseases. 

The steep slopes cultures were sprayed so far by the winemaker using an atomizer gun connected to a tank attached to his back. In some situations, helicopters were also used to spray pesticides where the access to the cultures was difficult. Overall the task was rather challenging and one of the main advantages of the drone compared to the atomizer gun has been the improvements of the working conditions. 

The spraying with the drone is however not very ideal due to to some limitations (autonomy, tank size) and especially due to the orientation of the spraying nozzles. With drones and helicopters, the nozzles spray from the top of the cultures. With such aerial spray, the lower leaves and grapes of the vineyard are more difficult to reach than with spraying techniques on ground. In practice, this means a lower quality of application for the drone and the helicopter than for an atomizer gun. For the moment, the application of pesticides by drone still need to be complemented with some spraying with an atomizer on the ground to provide a sufficient protection from fungal diseases. 

In Switzerland, the same regulatory framework as for helicopters applied initially to the application of pesticide by drones. The low drift of the substance when sprayed from drones was an impulse to have drones regulated differently. Agroscope, the agricultural research center in Switzerland, has established a procedure to verify drones on their spraying accuracy and drift. If the drone has a drift similar to other applications of pesticides on the ground (Rautmann Curve), the drones type do get homologated. The individual drones still need to undergo a conformity verification every 3 years to ensure that the drift values are respected.

The homologation is linked to strict altitude and wind limitations during operations to ensure acceptable drift values are achieved. So far, 3 companies had their drones homologated by Agroscope. In order to spray, an operator will additionally need to obtain an operational authorization from the Swiss FOCA. In the context of this authorization process, the FOCA also verifies some aviation operational and technical requirements.

In Europe, a third of the vineyards are on steep slopes and the potential seem rather large for this market. However for the moment a EU directive (EU 2009/128/EC) forbids the aerial application of pesticides. This directive is the result of policy making which has been done for helicopters and applies also to drones. 

Although the quality of application of the drone is very similar to helicopters, the drift of the substance and the precision are much better for the former. The technology is also evolving towards better quality of application and increased autonomy. The potential benefits with regard to pesticides are very important and many European countries have started tests to better understand this technology. The current technological development also seem to evolve towards a better quality of application. For this use case to be applicable in Europe, the EU directive 2009/128/EC will probably need to be modified to allow a certain flexibility for the high precision drones. This might take another few years, but the drones will greatly impact pesticides treatments.

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