Drone technology used to fight local mosquitoes

By: Julie Miller, Design and Content Manager
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It’s summer time. And with that comes bug bites.
To help combat the influx of mosquitoes and vectors, Placer Mosquito and Vector Control District is flying drones.
By use of this modern technology, Placer Mosquito and Vector can go into remote or hard-to-reach areas and investigate cultures of pesky pests.
“That is one of the goals when we got our hands on this technology,” said Ada Barros, Placer Mosquito and Vector Control’s public affairs manager, “so we can get into less accessible areas.”
Though, the drones have yet to be sent on a mission in the foothills area, it’s only a manner of time before they are summoned up here. (See sidebar for what county residents think about the use of drones in this manner.)
Joel Buettner, general manager for Placer Mosquito and Vector Control, said by next summer they anticipate flying missions in the Auburn and Colfax area.
Drones are currently being used in the Lincoln and Roseville areas, mostly in agriculture fields, basically because the access is easier. As development grows with the program, they will be more knowledgeable and ready to venture into the hills.
“PMVCD district manager Joel Buettner and his staff know that invasive mosquitos carrying deadly diseases like West Nile, and Zika viruses can happen, and their daily mission is to prepare for the day it does,” said Will Stockwin, Placer Mosquito and Vector Control District Board of Trustees and Colfax mayor.
Some concerns from residents with the use of drones include privacy and safety.
Some benefits are: They can get into areas where cars or people would otherwise impact the environment; effectively target sprays; improve irrigation monitoring;  and reduce costs of equipment and labor, according to a background sheet provided by Placer Mosquito and Vector Control.
“Another thing that is interesting is that when we started this project there is the cool factor,” Buettner said. “Everyone thinks what we started is cool, but we can get to places we can’t any other way.”
The organization has three drones and are in the works of attaining two more, Barros said.
Each of the organization’s three drones serve a unique purpose.
Drone No. 1 is small, has a camera and can detect wind speed and weather conditions. This drone has been key in ensuring conditions are just right before sending in an airplane to spray an area with pesticides. Once the plane is up, the control district is charged, but with the drone able to send conditions in an instant, planes can be dispatched when the time is right.
Drone No. 2 is amphibious. It has the ability to land on water and it has a plastic dome with a camera in it under the device. This allows the drone to peer under water to help Placer Mosquito and Vector Control identify if there is any mosquito larvae.
Drone No. 3 is the latest acquisition to the organization and it does not have a camera but it has a sprayer that can cover a small area. This drone is still being trained on by technicians.
“They (the three drones) will work in concert a lot of of the times,” Barros said.
There are two pilots who fly the drones for Placer Mosquito and Vector Control. Each had to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to be in compliance with the law. They were already employed by the organization and were sent to get the needed training, specifically Drone University at McClellan Airport.
“This helped provide us a jump start into learning how to fly,” said Scott Schon, lead vector control technician and drone pilot. “After a couple months of practicing, we felt very comfortable flying our UAS (unmanned aircraft systems).”  
“I never imagined I would get to fly drones for work. Until two years ago, I had no experience with unmanned aircraft, now I wish I had started sooner,” Schon said. “A lot of people have the knowledge to fly UAS, however, they’re still looking for that job to take it from a hobby to a career. Here, we were very fortunate that we already had the career and the drones found us.”
Before flying the drones, the district contacts area 911 dispatchers so that if a call is made, emergency personnel are already aware of the activity and location of the aircraft.
Placer County is rather ahead of other vector control districts with its use of drones and technology.
“We were, I believe, one of the first mosquito control agencies to acquire a drone and a framework to incorporate it,” Barros said.
She estimates that Placer Mosquito and Vector Control is one of a few across the state that has utilized the technology and has the variety of drones in use and is the most advanced in using them.
“They’re pretty sophisticated,” Barros said.