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Environmental protection may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of drones. But the small consumer crafts are now being used in France to fight an invasive species of hornets that threaten to wipe out Europe's pollinating-bee population.
DroneVolt, which typically designs drones to film extreme sports like surfing and skiing, teamed up with bee experts and French chemical company Landes to make the new "Spray Hornet" drone. It's equipped with a tilting aerosol can of insecticide that wipes out entire nests of Asian hornets.
The seven-pound drone is equipped with a GoPro camera, allowing the drone flier to take a look at the hive, then spray a sulfate-free pesticide. The "mission" as the site calls it, can be carried out within five minutes. The drones are approved by the French government, the company said, and are licensed to be flown in cities.
DroneVolt's executive vice president of sales and marketing Daniel Roe said the drone came from a French beekeeper's need to get rid of nests that sit 30 to 50 feet above the ground. The beekeepers were using cherry-pickers, or a machine with a basket and crane to get close enough to spray the nests.
"That was the impetus for this particular drone," Roe told CNBC. Although the drone costs $11,200, Roe said consumers may eventually save money based on the cost of hiring cranes to get rid of nests.
The Asian hornet's venom has a class II toxicity level, with an undoubtedly painful sting. Kim Hoelmer, entomologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, says drones like this could be especially useful when dealing with hornets.
"You would not want to be stung by one," Hoelmer said. "They're large, they're very aggressive, they go after people but they are also an agricultural problem."
Asian Hornets feed on grapes and honeybees, causing problems for the farmers and the overall ecosystem, Hoelmer said. The hornets are native to China and appeared in France more than a decade ago but are now present in two-thirds of the country, according to DroneVolt's website.
While the species has yet to affect to the U.S., Hoelmer said drones could be useful in a similar domestic pest situation because of precision. The small, concentrated dose deployed by drones could minimize the negative effect of pesticides, he said.
"A drone would be a lot more precise and could apply the pesticide where it was needed, and presumably nowhere else," Hoelmer said. "So that would be minimizing the impact."
Former FAA Acting Administrator Barry Valentine said drones have been used in agriculture for years but the advantage of very concentrated pesticide spraying is novel.
"I suspect that every day someone comes up with a new use for these drones," Valentine said. "One of the advantages that those vehicles offer is access to places where it may be physically difficult for people to go, and not very difficult for one of these drones to go."
The problem has never been with commercialization, he said. Drones are now used by real estate developers to photograph property, by police for surveillance, and by farmers for checking on crops. The problem is with balancing regulation and these new uses.
"It's a combination of being able to introduce these vehicles into a system efficiently but also being able to introduce them into the system safely," Valentine said. "Regulators will have to look at that and make sure that that doesn't conflict with other objectives."
Small crafts like the "Spray Hornet" that can do more than just survey land are the next step in the drone industry, according to Thomas Haun, executive vice president of drone-maker PrecisionHawk.
"I do think that's where the industry is going", adding that PrecisionHawk is still determining whether or not they'll make a precision-spray drone. Yamaha, a partner of PrecisionHawk, already makes a drone that sprays rice paddies in Japan. "I would not be surprised if you saw drones moving very quickly into the application step as well."