Vintners begin using drone helicopters

Yamaha Vineyard Drone

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[Editor’s Note: There are 2,500 Yamaha RMAX helicopters in operation worldwide.]

A new way to protect grapevines from disease, delivered from above, is taking flight over Napa vineyards.

On May 18, a vineyard owned by Venge Vineyards in Calistoga was the site of the first U.S. commercial crop spraying by unmanned aerial system, according to a news release from Yamaha Motor Corp.

The company makes small-sized helicopters that are flown via remote control over vineyards to apply chemicals on the crops below.

Yamaha’s remotely piloted helicopter, called the RMAX, is different from drones that hobbyists typically fly, said Brad Anderson, a market development manager for Yamaha’s Unmanned Systems Division.

Instead of a camera, the RMAX features a 16-liter tank strapped on its side. It hovers around 10 feet above the vines to distribute the chemicals.

“All our flights are low and slow,” said Anderson. In fact, the rotor wash actually helps push the chemicals down into the fruit canopy.

The first Napa Valley flight was completed for Napa-based Silverado Farming Co. During its debut the RMAX applied a fungicide to control powdery mildew — one of the most common fungal diseases affecting grapes and many other crops.

For Yamaha, the U.S. debut of RMAX commercial services for the agricultural industry marks the culmination of several years working with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive appropriate certifications, as well as extensive field research with the University of California at Davis.

Brittany Pederson, a professional pest control adviser and viticulturist for Silverado Farming Co., said the RMAX provides a promising solution for grapegrowers.

“The results of trials and conclusions drawn from work at the Oakville Experimental Vineyards were pretty strong and gave us the confidence to begin our own experiments with the RMAX on privately owned commercial vineyards.”

With many hillside and smaller acreage plots in Napa County, aerial spraying can be a good alternative to having someone walk vineyards on hills wearing a backpack sprayer, said Anderson. It can be difficult or impossible to drive a tractor on such hills. Tractors can also affect the soil by compacting it.

Creating a safety “halo,” the RMAX operator remains 60 feet away from the helicopter. A second person is stationed at the other end of the acreage. Flights only take place in the daytime and the helicopter always remains within the line of sight. Flights are conducted at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons, vessels, vehicles and structures, with certain exceptions.

Each of the RMAX units is valued at between $100,000 and $150,000. But customers don’t buy them, instead they pay for the spraying service. Those fees have not been finalized yet, Anderson said, but will vary depending on terrain, application, location and number of acres.

There are currently two such RMAX helicopters in Napa, he said.

Unlike a tractor spraying chemicals, RMAX coverage looks different when applied. It’s more concentrated, explained Anderson. For some vineyard managers who aren’t used to the new way of application, “that’s a challenge,” he said.

The technology has been used in Japan for 25 years, but it’s new to the U.S. Testing of the RMAX unit started in August 2012 at the UC Davis experimental station in Oakville, as well as the nearby Robert Mondavi and Harlan Estate wineries.

“It’s gratifying to have earned support from both the aviation and agricultural communities,” said Anderson.

A representative from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation was on hand to witness Yamaha’s inaugural commercial spray application with RMAX.

The RMAX has been in service internationally since 1997 and has logged more than 2 million flight hours treating agricultural acres.

Today there are 2,500 Yamaha RMAX helicopters in operation worldwide, spraying more than 2.4 million agricultural acres annually. The majority of those in use are in Japan, said Anderson. The helicopter has been used for agricultural spraying with many crops including rice, wheat, soybeans and vegetables.

In April, Yamaha opened a new office at the Napa County Airport to support RMAX commercial spray services for growers primarily located in Napa and Sonoma counties.


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