ROCK ISLAND — You’ll find lots of cool things flying through the air above a Rock Island apple orchard: Birds, bugs and … robots?

Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research Center keeps an orchard  south of Rock Island Dam for just such purposes. Last week, growers and scientists got together here to see the possible future of pest control.

"I just think that the drones — it’s a technology whose time has come," says Dr. Elizabeth Beers, a WSU entomologist specializing in orchard pests. 

These drones, demonstrated by WSU researcher Lav Khot and operators from M3 Consulting of Ohio, are programmed to programmed coordinates above the orchard and drop a payload. Today it’s a bunch of dead insect husks, but the system is being used in Canada to disperse sexually sterilized coddling moths.

Those moths are the bane of any commercial orchard, but sterile moths can be purposely introduced to control population and protect the fruit. Dispersing them from the air, rather than the ground, seems to have better results, and save on human labor.

"Moths like to be in the top third of the tree, and that being the case, sprinkling them out on the tops of the trees is putting them exactly where they want to be," Beers says. "… That means more competitive, sterile moths, using this method of release."

"The aircraft is completely autonomous," says M3 Consulting partner Dustin Krompetz. "So our employee will come to your orchard, place the aircraft, load the insect, make sure the sky's clear and everybody's aware that there's an unmanned aircraft operation going on. Once everything is safe, essentially it's easy as easy as pushing a button.

You could see these drone operations become commonplace in Washington as early as next year. M3 plans to start working with growers here after years of success in Canada.

Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013