M3 Desert Cardinal UAS

Development of an Unmanned Aircraft System to Release Sterile Pink Bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) in Arizona



DATE: APRIL 12-15, 2015



USDA, APHIS, PPQ, S&T is committed to monitoring for and responding to the reemergence / reintroduction of the pink bollworm into the United States. Development of rapid response technologies is needed. The USDA, in cooperation with M3 Consulting Group, developed an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to conduct aerial release of sterile insects in a rapid response situation. This process required several permits and licenses to be processed and approved by the FAA.


The initial development of the UAS program for PBW was divided into two simultaneous goals. These goals were the procurement of a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to legally operate in the national airspace system (NAS) and the development of the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) which consists of the flight vehicle with insect release mechanism, supporting ground equipment and trained personnel. This paper focuses specifically on the development of the UAS and release mechanism.


This test was designed to compare the biological effects on PBW of being released by either the UAS release mechanism or the traditional release machine in a Cessna 206. The mechanisms were removed from their respective aircraft and tested on  the bench. The UAS release mechanism was developed using oatmeal as a surrogate. First test run with moths showed the initial propeller speed for the UAS release mechanism was too high (500 grams of thrust). When tested with 100 grams of moths in the release tube, the fan forcefully ejected all moths in one big push, harder than ideal. For the second test run, we changed to a variable propeller control. With a full tube of moths (100 grams), air flow was completely blocked, and did not allow release of the insects. We reduced the tube load to 75 grams or ¾ full. This allowed air flow across the top of the tube, picking up the moths. The moths metered out smoothly.  Thus this was our setting for the 3rd test run. These moths were collected and 10 longevity vials with 10 moths each were set up (see photo, above). The Cessna 206 release auger was set to 300. We poured 75 grams of test moths into the auger as they were metered out. The moths collected were also set up 10 vials of 10 moths each. The control was simply poured out of the cardboard tube into the plastic bag. From these we set up 10 vials of 10 moths each.

1 hour post set up check showed no mortality for any of the treatments. Longevity vials were held at 82 degrees F under moon glow lighting, sexes mixed (Figure 1). Moths were fed sugar water in cotton wicks, changed every 3 days. At the end of 3 weeks, there were no significant differences in the number of moths surviving from either release mechanism or the check (Table 1).


Figure 1: Longevity vials of moths, held in moon glow lighting


Table 1: Analysis of PBW survivorship over a three week period.


First Generation Sterile Insect Release Devise developed by M3 Consulting Group and USDA-APHIS.

1. Background

The USDA has relied on manned aircraft to release sterile pink bollworm since the 1970's, with significant advancement and accomplishment achieved between the 1970's to present. The use of manned aircraft, however, presents a significant cost to the Pink Bollworm Eradication Program, which is primarily grower funded, and as a result, this paper seeks to present a proof of principle study to assess the impact of release via Unmanned Aircraft Systems as a potential complementary or replacement technology for the use of full sized aircraft.


The first generation UAS release mechanism successfully demonstrated that it is possible to release PBW via UAS with minimal negative impact in terms of the initial mortality and longevity. Further studies will need to be conducted to assess the impact of chilling and compaction, as well as the impact of release on mating and field competitiveness.


As a result of this successful proof of principle study, M3 Consulting Group with the United States Department of Agriculture have ample data to move ahead to field trials during the summer of 2015. These studies will be conducted in central Arizona, with support from USDA Aircraft Equipment Operations, USDA Agriculture Research Service,  Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council, the Pink Bollworm Rearing Facility and several key Central Arizona cotton stakeholders. 

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