Drone tech’s next big target? Insect pest management

Science Notes: There are multiple potential future applications for drone tech in the works

Drone tech’s next big target? Insect pest management

Drones keep getting smaller and smaller, while their potential applications keep getting bigger and bigger. And now unmanned aircraft systems are taking on some of the world’s biggest small problems: insect pests.

From crop-munching caterpillars to disease-transmitting mosquitoes, insects that threaten crops, ecosystems, and public health are increasingly being targeted with new pest-management strategies that deploy unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) for detection and control. And a variety of these applications are featured in a new special collection in the Journal of Economic Entomology.

“Ten years ago, there was not much happening in the space in terms of entomologists deploying UAS for pest management,” says Nathan Moses-Gonzales, CEO of M3 Agriculture Technologies, who compiled the research collection alongside Michael Brewer, Ph.D., professor of field crops entomology with AgriLife Research at Texas A&M University. But, in the time since, technological advances have opened the doors for creative collaborations between entomologists and drone developers, says Moses-Gonzales. 

“The evolution of UAS technology in entomology has been fascinating to watch.”

The collection in the Journal of Economic Entomology, featuring both newly released and recently published research, gathers examples illustrating both the progress and potential of drone technology in insect pest management settings. Case studies include:

  • Locating and sampling standing water for mosquito larvae and improving accuracy of insecticide applications targeting mosquito larvae and adults.
  • Applying precise amounts of pheromones via drone over cranberry beds to disrupt the mating of cranberry fruitworms (Acrobasis vaccinii) and blackheaded fireworms (Rhopobota naevana).
  • Photographing tree canopies from above via drone in winter to survey for presence of cocoons of the moth Monema flavescens and prevent defoliation in the subsequent summer.
  • Delivering and releasing predator and parasitoid insects via drone to target the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) and the eastern spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana).
  • Using drones to release sterile Mexican fruit flies (Anastrepha ludens) and codling moths (Cydia pomonella) to suppress wild populations of the pests, a modern improvement on the classic sterile insect technique.

Several articles in the collection also explore potential future applications for drone technology in insect pest management, including aerial spectral imagery of crops and plants to assess signs of pest damage, enhanced deployment of traps and monitoring systems to detect insects in hard-to-reach locations, and more.

Of course, continued research, development, and experimentation will refine drone technology in the pest management context, and research in related fields such as automation and artificial intelligence will be critical, as well. Moses-Gonzales and Brewer say they see a bright future for this multidisciplinary field.

“Here, we hope that the Journal of Economic Entomology will serve as a venue that not only supports rigorous research but also details the development of new and novel tools for use in pest management,” Moses-Gonzales says.

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