A drone large enough to carry tanks of fertilizers and pesticides has won rare approval from federal authorities to spray crops in the US, officials say. The drone, called the RMAX, is a remotely piloted helicopter that weighs 207 pounds, according to Steve Markofski of Yamaha, which developed the aircraft. Smaller drones weighing a few pounds had already been approved for limited use to take pictures that help farmers identify unhealthy crops. The RMAX is the first time a drone big enough to carry a payload has been approved. The drone already has been used elsewhere, including by rice farmers in Japan. The FAA approved it for the US on Friday.
"I certainly understand their cautious approach," Markofski says. "It's a daunting task given our airspace is complicated." The drone is best suited for precision spraying on California's rolling vineyards and places that are hard to reach from the ground or with larger, piloted planes, says an agricultural engineering expert who tested the device. "A vehicle like this gives you a way to get in and get out and get that treatment done," he says. With this move, the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says "the FAA is taking an important step forward to helping more industries in the US realize the benefits [drone] technology has to offer." (Read more drones stories.)