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County in Montana Works Toward Mosquito-Fighting Drone Program

Drones might be a better solution for controlling mosquitoes in remote areas that ground vehicles have a hard time accessing.

(TNS) — Spring rains have brought early signs of summer in Montana's Flathead Valley and with it, mosquitoes. Flathead County Mosquito Control has responded with a coordinated effort to contain the mosquito population and the diseases it carries while looking to the future when drone technology will take the program to the next level.

Flathead County Mosquito Control is set to launch its drone application program next year after a protracted approval process. The program received the go-ahead for its drone applicator in a 2-1 vote by county commissioners in March, after Commissioner Gary Krueger turned down an earlier request to review the county’s policies for aerial application of insecticides. The approval allotted $25,000 for the drone and related costs such as a high-definition camera and granular application.

Though originally intended for use this summer, the length of the approval process has pushed mosquito prevention by drone until the summer of 2019. But preparations for the aerial application are already underway, said Jake Rubow, a mosquito control technician at Flathead County who will pilot the drone next year.

“I’ve already qualified as a drone pilot with the FAA, so that’s taken care of in terms of technical licensure,” he said. “Once we get clearance to actually carry and apply pesticide, we’ll have to calibrate everything.”

Rubow said the program is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to complete the proper waiver certifying their compliance with federal regulations. That process should be completed in a few weeks, with the drone in the program’s possession.

In the meantime, the program has proceeded as usual in responding on the ground to the Valley’s nascent mosquito population, according to its annual Pesticide Discharge Management Plan. The county already uses a drone, sans chemicals, to monitor flooding, examine known mosquito hotspots and locate new mosquito production sites.

The aerial application of larvicide — less toxic than the insecticide used to kill adult mosquitos — is the natural next step in providing effective treatment to mosquito populations and to stay ahead of the game, said Rubow.

Applying treatments from the air “is something that larger districts do with conventional aircraft.” But since large aircraft are not practical for the Flathead Valley, “getting a drone and making treatments from the air makes for more efficient and better quality treatment,” said Rubow.

The new drone and permit to carry chemicals was sought to target wet or more remote areas in the valley that are difficult to reach with the department’s all-terrain vehicles. Rubow said that more specifically, they’re looking to cover areas in the lower valley, near the Flathead River, that, when flooded, are too deep to access with their vehicles.

While a mosquito-prevention drone in the sky sounds like a scene from the future, Rubow explained that numerous steps and safeguards have been enacted to keep policy in line with technology.

“We had to come up with a new pesticide management plan to explain how we’d use the drone,” he said. “We will not be flying over or applying treatment to anyone’s property without their permission.”

©2018 The Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.