Agricultural aviation goes high tech with GPS, GIS

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Published: March 8,1999

Agricultural aviation is no longer simply a matter of flying over a field and dumping chemicals. It’s much more sophisticated these days. It’s more complicated, too, with environmentalists worried about “pesticide drift.”

“The EPA is coming down hard on this,” said Robert Lesley, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. “Say I’m a catfish farmer next to a cotton plantation and pesticides being sprayed on cotton are drifting over to my catfish pond, causing problems for me. That’s the issue the EPA is working on.”

Most aerial applicators in Mississippi use computerized equipment to apply pesticides on a large acreage of the crops to avoid spraying pesticides into streams and lakes and to have a record of accountability, Lesley said.

“A lot of crop dusting companies pull out GPS maps that are so precise, it can pinpoint within a few feet of what was sprayed,” he said. “It’s getting more sophisticated than most people realize.”

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) show the position of crops through satellite-linked technology and is most frequently used by agricultural applicators on their planes. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) spot data primarily by land.

Thomas Sledge, chairman of the commercial aviation department at Delta State University, said their licensing program for multi-engine, commercial, and instructor ratings does not include the special licensing certification needed to be an agricultural applicator.

“Typically, folks who want to go into agricultural flying go to a school that provides a specific rating for that,” Sledge said. “There’s not one in Mississippi.”

In addition to licensure by the state agriculture aviation board and the Federal Aviation Administration, aerial applicators are required to pass a written examination on pesticide application and to attend an annual training session to be relicensed. About 300 Mississippi pilots attended last year, said Robert McCarty, director of the Bureau of Plant Industry in Starkville.

“Aerial applicators have to comply with a whole host of environmental regulations,” said McCarty. “Airplanes and operating costs are very expensive and the industry hasn’t increased its costs to the farmers in recent years so I’m sure aerial applicators are operating on a very, very thin margin.”

Applicators must have an operator’s certificate, liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance. If they participate in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, they are required to have a GPS in their airplanes and provide computer printouts of all applications, McCarty said.

Wes Allen, executive director of the Mississippi Agricultural and Aviation Association, said airplanes costing several hundred thousand dollars equipped with sophisticated guidance systems are a contrast to the inexpensive equipment used at the end of World War II.

“We’re trapped with the farmers,” Allen said. “The farmer can’t get anything for his product. Therefore, we can’t do anything about our pricing structure. We play a very vital part in agriculture in the Delta and have made a tremendous investment in time and money.”

In 1966, a separate state agency was created by law to handle matters relating to safety, environmental concerns and state regulations in aerial application in Mississippi. Because the bill that produced the board has a sunset provision and is reauthorized periodically, Rep. Charlie Capps, Jr. (D-Cleveland) introduced House Bill 864 to reenact the same legislation this year.

Another bill, House Bill 759, will transfer funds in Fiscal Year 1999 appropriated to the state agricultural aviation board from contracts and services to equipment, so the funds can be used to purchase a computer. Both bills are expected to pass, Capps said.

“Pesticide drift is an area of concern to farmers, applicators and the general public,” McCarty said. “There has been a concerted effort to manage pesticide application in such a way that you get the product in the field. When pesticides are used according to the label, there’s no question they are safe to man, animals and the environment. When misused, they have the potential to cause damage or an adverse effect.”

Stiff penalties and fines may be levied against aerial applicators that cause pesticide drift problems, he said.

“It could also lead to suspension or revocation of their licenses,” McCarty said. “An aerial applicator is subject to lawsuits if damage is caused. If there is a problem and the insurance company has to pay, insurance costs will go up or be cancelled and he can’t operate legally without insurance. Penalties for misuse can include a $25,000 civil penalty.”

About 15 to 20 cases are presented for enforcement action annually to the agricultural aviation board, which consists of four aerial applicators and McCarty.

“In recent years, the number of complaints and incidences have been down,” he said.

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