KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — New technology is aiding the ongoing effort to reduce disease-spreading pests in southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin — and the company offering the service is the first in the country licensed to do so.
Specialized drones capable of spraying pesticides or spreading granular insecticides are the newest tools being implemented by Three Rivers Mosquito and Vector Control, a family-run business in Klamath Falls that services much of the Pacific Northwest.
Established initially in 2002, and revived in 2012; the in-demand work of reducing mosquito populations and other pests for disease prevention and human comfort has typically been a messy process. It has traditionally involved handling chemicals and application of pesticides by hand or vehicle, often necessitating trudging through mud to reach swamps and ponds where larvae breed.
For company operators Ed Horvath and Danta Smith, finding alternatives to large-scale fogging of chemical clouds and more environmentally-friendly means of applying chemicals in a feasible manner has been a multiyear pursuit. First they tried using ATVs and trucks to reach trouble areas. In 2017, Horvath realized drones could access areas not easily reachable on foot, and could apply insecticides with greater precision, reducing the amount of chemicals added to the environment.
“We started all by hand and truck application, then upgraded to ATVs but even ATVs couldn’t get everywhere we wanted,” said Horvath, director and vector ecologist for Three Rivers. “County governments have used helicopters and airplanes, but I saw that as a waste of money, so we looked into drones and found out that while they’ve been used for spraying in China for years, nobody has been doing it here at all.”
Drone technology has been growing rapidly in recent years, moving beyond recreational or photographic use to more practical purposes. Companies such as UPS and even Chipotle are testing drone delivery concepts. Law enforcement and other government agencies are starting to embrace the technology for their purposes. In Asia, drones equipped with flame-throwers burn debris off of high-voltage power lines, and in Dubai, flying drone taxis are already in service. While vector control via drone is a growing industry in Asia, in the U.S., Three Rivers is the first to gain permission to do so — an unprecedented process that at times left the company and the Federal Aviation Administration confounded as to how to progress.
By targeting exact sites with drones, the amount of chemicals used is reduced, thereby taking a more environmentally friendly approach while also being less expensive than manned aircraft.
Drones also provide a better comfort factor for its operators, capable of reaching areas that would otherwise necessitate drudging through mud or difficult terrain for pesticide application. The custom drones acquired by Three Rivers spread granular pesticides or spray liquid chemicals, rarely doing so more than a few feet off the ground at any time for maximum effectiveness of the application.
“We started off just taking pictures,” Horvath said. “I called around asking if drones could be used to spray and was told there was no legal way to do it. We started researching it, and got licensed to fly drones.”
A multimonth process began with Horvath and Smith collaborating closely with the Oregon Flight Standards District Office in Hillsboro and the FAA to determine proper waivers, rules and regulations. Specialized drones were acquired capable of completing the task, costing upwards of $20,000 each, purchased in cooperation through grants with Chiloquin Vector Control District — one of Three Rivers’ primary clients. While not the first in the country to consider it, Three Rivers through a seven-month process became the first to be approved by the FAA for vector control drone spraying.
“The FAA wasn’t sure how to test us — we had to submit our own rules for training, so we made our own set that now the FAA is following,” Horvath said. “The local FSDO was really excited though, I guess they wanted to be the first.”
While Three Rivers provides vector control services across Washington and Oregon, the acquisition of drones was largely an effort through Chiloquin, which faced a difficult economic decision in continued vector control district operations.
“The use of drones fascinated us, because we have one of the smallest budgets in the state,” said Dennis Jeffcoat, chairman of the board of trustees for Chiloquin Vector Control District. “The cost of labor is skyrocketing, and we saw that we could be placed out of operations unless we found a better way to apply materials.”
The switch to drone use, Jeffcoat said, initially caused some public privacy concerns, but Horvath noted that his specialized drones don’t even have cameras on them.
“We’re not designed to take over for crop dusters, we’re more specific,” said Horvath. “A 100-acre field may only need to be treated for 1 to 2 acres. By taking this approach, we can spray a small spot rather than the whole field. Helicopters and airplanes will also put out three times as much chemicals as we need.”
Horvath said it takes about 15 minutes to treat 1 acre with application of one tank of pesticides lasting about as long as a single charged battery does for each flight.
“Our main goal is to reduce disease and discomfort for humans and health issues,” said Smith. “If we can treat a small area without having to fog, or do granular application that doesn’t leave chemical residue, it’s better for the environment. We don’t have to do it the way other companies do where they just fog everything with chemicals — we rarely fog in places like Chiloquin that used to fog three to four times per week. Our goal is to reduce the amount of chemicals used.”