The Past and Future of Aerial Spraying

Crop dusting or aerial spraying has had a controversial history, due to the high degree of risk it poses to operators and its potential for environmental damage.

The most common planes used for crop dusting are fixed wing planes such as the Cessna, the Grumman Ag Cat and the Piper Pawnee, but today it is not uncommon for helicopters to also be used for spraying. Prior to this, converted World War II surplus bi-planes were employed such as the Tiger Moth.

Crop dusting aircraft tend to be of simple, rugged design, often with spraying systems built into the wings and pumps powered by wind turbines.

Because of their greater potential to cause spray drift than ground-based sprayers, crop dusters always fly as close to the crop as they can (often as low as 15 feet) and this, along with all the obstacles they must avoid such as power lines and farm buildings, often contributes to accidents, of which there have been many over the years.

These days, aerial spraying is subject to strict controls and regulations in western countries, but the problems of the past (spray drift through operator error, incorrect mixing of chemicals and improper disposal of containers) are being repeated in third world countries, where regulation has failed to keep pace with development.

In 1958, the Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia was formed, followed in the 1960s by the National Agricultural Aviation Association in the USA. Both bodies had the aim of maintaining a sustainable agricultural aviation industry in their respective countries and educating their operators about safety, security and drift mitigation.

Since then, the aerial spraying industry has seen marked improvements in the efficiency and accuracy of spray delivery and a substantial drop in the number of pesticide-related accidents.

In Australia today, agricultural aviation employs around 2,000 people full time and another 2,000 part time. It is an industry that is worth over $200 million and uses over 300 specialised aircraft.

Unlike the daredevil crop dusters of the past, today’s ag pilots are highly trained professionals who are required to have a commercial pilot’s licence, an agricultural rating and a chemical distributor’s licence.

As with ground-based spraying, another factor apart from operator error that can contribute to environmental contamination is malfunctioning equipment due to poor maintenance. Ag pilots, just like ground-based operators, need to check their equipment regularly for wear.

Agricultural crops simply cannot be grown on the scale they are today without aerial application of pesticides and fertilisers. Crops such as cotton, rice, bananas and cane all rely on aerial applications for their growth and protection.

Aerial spraying is fast, cost effective and avoids the crop damage and soil compaction associated with ground-based spraying. It is a highly regulated industry employing professional operators who use best-practice methods at all times.

Those who call for it to be banned on environmental grounds must first come up with a better solution for crop protection on such a massive scale. Otherwise, love it or hate it, aerial application is here for the long haul.

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