Florida county to battle mosquitoes through federal drone program

US News & World Report
Andrew Soergel
Miguel Sotomayor | Getty Images

It's been an uncharacteristically busy week for Eric Jackson, a public information officer at the Lee County Mosquito Control District in southwestern Florida.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Wednesday afternoon named Lee County's mosquito control outfit one of only 10 state, local and tribal government entities to be selected for the Federal Aviation Administration's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.

That means Lee County's mosquito control operations will be able to incorporate drone technology under more relaxed standards than they would otherwise be required to adhere to under current law.

It also means an unlikely spotlight has been shined on the county's pest control efforts.

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"I'm hoping after today it'll quiet down. We're getting a lot of media requests, but it's also I'm getting inundated with drone operators that want jobs," Jackson says. "I'm thinking, 'Man, this really made it around the country.'"

The FAA in a statement this week indicated it had received 149 formal proposals from across the U.S. The pilot program is expected to run over the next two and a half years, and feedback from those selected will likely help the federal government decide whether to loosen restrictions on commercial and governmental drone use in the future.

Among the other finalists, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has been granted broader drone approval to monitor crops and livestock herds. Alaskan pipeline inspection efforts are likely to see greater unmanned aircraft use in the months and years ahead. But Lee County was the only finalist recognized that intends to use broader drone approval for pest control.

"We've been doing this for 60 years with aircraft dealing with mosquito issues, so I'm thinking that might have played a part (in our selection)," Jackson says, describing the county's mosquito populations as a potential public health problem. "Our district relies heavily on aerial operations."

Lee County's mosquito control efforts – which span an area that Jackson says includes "a lot of mangrove habitat" – already involve helicopters and small aircraft that monitor and in some cases treat areas with particularly high pest activity.

Jackson says his department has also partnered with the Lee County Hyacinth Control District in the past, making limited use of unmanned drones to "take images of aquatic bodies to see where there's a lot of vegetation."

"Because where you have vegetation crowding out water, sometimes mosquitoes can grow in those," he says.

But with its new recognition from the FAA, the department hopes to make use of a much larger 1,500-pound drone in its monitoring and pest treatment operations. Its status in the program will allow drone operators to fly at night, beyond a visible line of sight and directly over people, potentially at lower altitudes. All three of those stipulations would not be permitted under current law.

"We potentially could be using it more for surveillance and in more isolated areas for treatment missions," Jackson says. "We're trying to be as innovative as we can and as efficient as we can. And if this can be used safely, we're open to anything."

But details of how and when an unmanned drone weighing more than an adult grizzly bear will be flying over Lee County are still up in the air. Jackson notes the control district's location in the Sunshine State subjects it to particularly stringent public records laws. He says mosquito control officials will hold a special commissioners meeting later this month to discuss how and when they will take their next steps with the program.

But he says he and his colleagues are honored and excited to have been selected for such a competitive program – even if that means his phone continues to ring off the hook for the time being.

"Really, the whole point of this program is to be able to expand beyond the current regulations to see how this can be used," he says. "We have pilots in the air, and as the airspace becomes more crowded and people start flying above 400 feet and out of line of sight, [we asked ourselves] how can we make sure we have a seat at the table to where we can help draft these regulations to keep our pilots safe."