A clique of 25 vineyard owners and farmers, always looking for ways to economize, had gathered on a Wednesday in November at an experimental winery owned by the University of California (Davis). There, at 11 a.m., they watched an unmanned helicopter called RMax lift off from a small grassy field. It showered 40 long rows of grapes from 2-gallon tanks mounted along each side of the fuselage, its sprayers pushing the liquid directly onto the crops. A tractor rigged to spew pesticide or fertilizer can douse the same area, just over an acre, in an hour. The drone did it in less than six minutes.
The RMax, built by Yamaha, has been a fixture in Japan since the 1990s. It sprays nearly half that country’s rice crops, part of the Japanese government’s solution to assist its elderly farming population and prevent pesticides from wafting into residential areas. The drones can fly much closer to the crops; the downwash from the buzzing rotor blades helps coat both the tops and bottoms of leaves, unlike more expensive piloted aircraft. American wineries, for now, rely largely on lumbering tractors, which are slowed by challenging terrain.
With 1 million acres of grapes in the United States, it’s a “tremendous opportunity” for the drone helicopter to change the way farmers do business, says Steve Markofski, the new business planner for Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, who attended the demonstration. And wineries are just the beginning.