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Drones may be for sale, but they are not legal for use in spraying pesticides in Canada.
Drones may be for sale, but they are not legal for use in spraying pesticides in Canada.

With increasingly fierce competition from nearly all corners of the planet, Canadian growers are anxious to have access to new technology. After all, technology uptake has long been one of their defining characteristics, and helps them compete against growers who enjoy larger economies of scale.


But while technology access is usually a solution, it’s also a problem when it comes to spraying pesticides  -- including fungicides and herbicides -- with drones, other than for very limited applications for mosquito control.


Federal regulatory bodies are plodding along, working to develop legislation that will permit drones’ use for crop pest and disease control. Currently, in Canada, drones piloted by licensed operators are approved only for uses such as micronutrient applications in field crops. The user must be onsite.


Why so cautious?


Well, even experts say a drone’s footprint is still not fully understood. Burgessville, Ontario’s Paul Van den Borre, who uses 10-litre drones for trial micronutrient applications as part of his sales function with Eco+, says drift can be a real problem.


“I’ve seen airplanes and helicopters spray, and they are pretty good at hitting the target,” he says. “From my experience, with drones it doesn’t take much of a wind to move your pattern and change what your drone’s trying to do. I have tools on my [conventional] sprayer that allow me to spray on windy days, but those tools aren’t there yet for drones.”


Health Canada, through the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), reviews applications from chemical companies about specific products and how and where they can be used.


Drone information on Health Canda’s website, current as of June 2023, says this:


“The PMRA has not received any data to support the use of drones for pesticide application with active ingredients that require a drone-specific risk assessment. The PMRA has thus not yet characterized the hazards/risks posed to human health and the environment, or the value of the product, associated with the use of drones to apply these kinds of pesticides. For these pesticides that require a drone-specific risk assessment, once this information has been received and determined to pose an acceptable risk and have acceptable value, drones can then be included on the product label.”

PMRA is notoriously cautious. Some say it could take years for drone-applied pesticide use to be approved. But all that hasn’t stopped some retailers from marketing drones for pesticide applications, raising legal and ethical questions. Numerous reports are circulating of farmers using drones for pesticide applications, particularly units with big 70-litre payloads, despite risking fines from Transport Canada.


Van den Borre and others in agri-business urge growers to obey the law. But he understands that the allure is significant.


Here’s why. First, drones don’t cause compaction in your fields or plots, from tires. And for the likes of pumpkins, melons, squash and potatoes where tram lines mostly don’t exist, the advantages of having machinery that can hover rather than drive across vines and fruit like conventional sprayers are huge. The same goes for hard-to-reach areas.


And then there’s the disease factor.


“Tire tracks give disease a big potential to spread,” Van den Borre says. “Drones help get rid of that problem.”


As well, convenience is key. Your own drone in your driveshed is immediately available when you need it. That’s unlike airplanes or helicopters for hire, especially in the summer when they typically head north to spray woodlands.


And finally, there’s the cost. Even though 70-litre payload arial sprayers can retail around $60,000, they’re still appreciably cheaper than a self-propelled sprayer.


Drones as sprayers aren’t just for large farms, or for boutique equipment companies. In May, Case IH announced the pre-launch of its first sprayer drone, in a 30-litre and 70-litre model.


Mainly aimed at small- and medium-sized farmers, the drone can complement or even replace sprayers in certain situations,” the company said in a news release. “The drone presents versatility for spraying and distributing solids, in addition to excellent application quality, uniformity of drops, and greater penetration into the plant canopy.”


So, equipment companies know the demand exists, as do crop protection companies. But it’s still a waiting game.


“Almost every pesticide company with a fungicide is working towards registration for drone applications,” Van den Borre says. “Farmers want this technology, and there’s nothing wrong with it when used correctly, but we just have to wait until approvals are given.”

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Submitted by Owen Roberts on 25 June 2024