Florida county to use federal drone program to combat major problem

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In a Wednesday announcement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao named 10 state, local and tribal government entities that were selected to receive assistance through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.

Among the entities chosen from 149 formal proposals across the U.S. was Lee County in southwestern Florida, whose mosquito control operations will be allowed to incorporate drone technology under more relaxed standards than would otherwise be required under current law.

The pilot program is expected to be conducted over the next two and a half years. Feedback from the program participants will assist the federal government in deciding whether to loosen restrictions on commercial and governmental drone use.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was also selected to participate in the program, and has been granted broader drone approval to monitor crops and livestock herds. Alaskan pipeline inspection efforts are likely to be enhanced by the use of more unmanned aircraft in the coming months and years. Lee County will be the only participant 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),” said Eric Jackson, a public information officer at the Lee County Mosquito Control District, where mosquitoes pose a potential public health problem. “Our district relies heavily on aerial operations.”

Mosquito control efforts in Lee County already involve helicopters and small aircraft that monitor and, in some cases, treat areas with particularly high pest activity. The county has previously partnered with the Lee County Hyacinth District to use 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,” Jackson said.

CNBC reported that with its new recognition from the FAA, Lee County “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.”

Jackson said that Lee County could potentially “be using it more for surveillance and in more isolated areas for treatment missions. 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. Really, the whole point of this program is to be able to expand beyond the current regulations to see how this can be used.”

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