That buzzing you hear from the ditch may soon not only be the beating wings of flitting mosquitoes but the propellers of a large, flying mosquito killer.
In Ascension Parish, officials are close to buying a new aerial drone able to fly, hover and spray up to 20 pounds of chemicals at a time in hard-to-reach areas where mosquitoes breed.
And in Lafayette Parish, a private mosquito control company is using drones to scout for breeding sites.
David Matassa, Ascension's director of mosquito control and brother of Parish President Kenny Matassa, said the drone can spray with a precision that would allow parish workers to save on cost and limit environmental impact compared with more broadly applied aerial methods. The drone, for instance, could be used to spray a ditch along a heavily traveled road with no shoulder that's traditionally been unsafe and hard to spray.
"This is the state of the art. This is the turning corner of mosquito control as far as programs in the country going toward this type of technology," David Matassa said.
While a parish worker is still in training and working on licensing requirements with the Federal Aviation Administration, Matassa said, the drone, which will cost $5,000 to $8,000, could be flying parish skies in time for the peak mosquito season.
The remotely operated drone won't replace the trucks and planes that already spray periodically through the parish and which kill the adult mosquitoes.
The drone, which can spray 80 acres in a day’s work, will be used to kill larvae growing in standing water, taking out the next generation of mosquitoes before they take flight.
“That’s actually one of the most important things you can do to control the population of mosquitoes, is larvicide,” he said.
Technology pioneered by the U.S. military to observe the battlefield and, later, to kill militants, remotely controlled aerial drones are being envisioned in a growing number of civilian applications, from Amazon’s promises to revolutionize delivery with its Octocopter to experiments to use drones to monitor Gulf Coast hurricanes.
The drone that Ascension Parish is looking at buying — a circular, tail-less craft with eight mini-props and a tank on the bottom — had its origins in remote-control helicopters developed to spray terraced rice paddies in the hillsides of Japan, China and southeast Asia where it is difficult to bring in land-based spray equipment.
Logan Noess, one of the owners of Maverick Drone Systems of Savage in Minnesota, said those early craft, developed about 15 years ago, cost around $100,000. The latest version costs 10 percent of those early craft. The cheaper variety has drawn the interest of local governments, including Ascension Parish, he said.
Noess, whose company is a U.S. dealer for the Chinese-built craft, a DJI Agras MG-1, said his company recently conducted a series of demonstrations in eight to 10 Louisiana parishes following a national conference of mosquito control officials.
“We were just spraying water out in fields, and from everything we have seen, it should work great,” he said.
Matassa, who went to that conference and witnessed a demonstration, speculated that Ascension may be the first in the state to use a drone for aerial spraying but likely won’t be the only one for long. He said he has spoken with other program directors, and many are eyeing drones for similar uses.
“I guarantee you within a few years, most all (mosquito control) programs will have them,” Matassa said.
Matassa said the drone can fly a few hundred feet high and 8,000 feet over land in a few minutes. While the drone could be outfitted with cameras, parish officials plan to focus on the spray technology, he said.
The contractor who handles mosquito control for Lafayette’s City-Parish government already uses smaller, cheaper drones but for a different application.
Glenn Stokes, owner of Mosquito Control Contractors Inc., said he uses a few $1,500 drones outfitted with surveillance cameras to look for hard-to-access breeding sites, including the parish’s more than 1,000 residential and commercial detention and retention ponds, but he does not yet use drones for spraying.
Because of the expense, that would require a change in the City-Parish contract, he said.
“The drones have a great potential, and I think you know they will be more and more in use, and at some point in time, that’s going to be in the future, they could actually replace inspectors,” Stokes said.
The use of camera-outfitted drones by businesses, law enforcement and even Stokes’ operation has generated privacy concerns, however. Stokes said his company only looks into the yards of homes that are abandoned or for which the company has received permission, though he said a major public health scare could result in broad surveys of breeding locations.
“It’s a delicate line,” Stokes said of the use drones and privacy rights.