Coming from a family of pilots, I was again struck by the power of aviation when I read that a single aircraft flown by a pilot can spray thousands of acres in a day. Still, some might say, “so what.” Our farmers and ranchers don’t think “so what” when they’re faced with wet soil conditions, remote locations, rolling terrain or dense plant foliage in battling a powerful and rapidly moving pest infestation. For Arizona, it’s also about large tracks of land. 

I landed on this topic thanks to Arizona Department of Agriculture’s Jack Peterson, associate director of the Environmental and Plant Services Division. “Aerial application professionals [pilots] are often underappreciated; all they do to prepare, to be licensed, the concerns they face, the technology they use and so much more.” 

Serving the agriculture and forestry sectors for 100 years, America’s aerial application industry of piloted aircraft is still the truest means of getting it done big, fast, and right. As hinted earlier, manned aerial application of crop protection products often provides the only practical method available for protecting our food supply if we’re talking large and/or complicated terrain. Large and often remote areas can be treated quickly, far faster than any other form of application, especially when pest infestations are quickly destroying the crops.

“Abnormally wet weather conditions … make aerial application an indispensable tool for ensuring high yields,” said Andrew Moore, Chief Executive Officer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) in an article regarding aerial application and challenging conditions. He went on to explain that while unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, also known as drones) technology is improving, even large UAVs used for agriculture are slow. So far, the typical UAV sprays on average seven to 10 acres an hour. During a 10-hour day of applications, this equates to only 70 to 100 acres treated per UAV. 

Of note, aircraft used for aerial application hold between 100 and 800 gallons of product. UAVs don’t have payloads approaching anything this size, nor can they achieve speeds even close to the 90 to 150 mph speeds piloted ag aircraft travel across a field during an application. 

“The USDA estimates that the average farm size in the U.S. is 444 acres and the most important principle in combatting a pest is to eradicate it immediately before it spreads,” Moore added. “A single manned aircraft can spray upwards of 2,000 acres a day. This is one of the benefits of manned aerial application that is unmatched by current UAV technology.”

Perhaps Moore’s bias shines through because he represents aviation that has a pilot in the cockpit. But when large acreage becomes part of the equation, Arizona’s farms are even bigger than the USDA’s 400-acre average. And while drones are getting bigger and future advances in technology may continue to make opportunities for unmanned aircraft brighter, that pilot you see flying low and precise over large corn, wheat and soybean fields will continue to be a common sight.  

A Few Interesting Points

Technology continues to advance the phrase, “more with less.” Both the National Agricultural Aviation Association and USDA point out that since aerial application can result in greater crop harvest yields, less land is being used for agricultural production, preserving important wetlands and ecosystems important to carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat. In one study, applications on corn showed aerial application increased yields by eight percent over ground application. 

According to the NAAA, aerial application is conducted in all 50 states by licensed pilots treating an average of 130 million acres of cropland each year, basically 28% to 30% of all croplands in the country. Not only do pilots have to hold the traditional pilot’s license, but also must be an ag operator under FAA oversight. Additionally, they must renew their license in crop protection from the pesticide regulatory agency in the state, most commonly the state’s department of agriculture. These rigorous standards ensure protection for the pilot, for agriculture and for the security of our food system. 

Plus, manned aerial application isn’t just for agriculture. Nearly 100 percent of forest protection applications are made by the agricultural aviation industry. In addition to agricultural aviation, the industry provides firefighting and public health application services to combat disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

Findings from the latest NAAA survey (2019) reveal the industry has grown. In the previous survey (2012), NAAA reported approximately 1,350 ag aviation businesses in the United States. The results of the 2019 survey report approximately 1,560 ag aviation businesses today are operational, a 15.5% increase.

Based on the same NAAA survey, the five most treated crops among aerial application operators are corn, wheat & barley, soybeans, pastures & rangelands, and alfalfa. But aerial applications are used on nearly all crops throughout the United States.

Whether for organic or conventional agriculture, all chemical treatments are highly regulated by the EPA, FDA and USDA, in addition to each state’s department of agriculture. The agriculture industry is very judicious in its use of pesticides, whether chemical or mechanical

“Knowing all that these applicators must contend with and know, the outdated term of endearment no longer fits.  They are not ‘crop dusters,’ they are professional aerial applicators,” explained Arizona Department of Agriculture’s Peterson.  

Ultimately while technology in traditional and non-traditional aerial application improves, wet soil conditions, remote locations, rolling terrain, dense plant foliage, along with hundreds of acres requiring treatment, continue to drive the use of a trained and licensed pilot in a cockpit. Plus, plant-nutrient application and even cover-crop seed spreading drive the use of manned aircraft, again most often because of vast areas to cover. 


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January issue of Arizona Agriculture.  Arizona Farm Bureau features a video on on this topic too.