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Italy: Red spider: a threat to crops, drones to the rescue

31/08/2018 - François-Xavier Branthôme - 2018 Season - Lire en français
Processing tomato growers and researchers from the Catholic University of Piacenza have been racing against time this past summer in order to prevent invasions of red spiders (Tetranychus urticae) and avoid the major threat that these mites represent for the region's crops, particularly in some areas of Val Trebbia. 
Damage caused by Tetranychus on a tomato leaf

The red spider is a tiny mite that attacks the leaves and is capable of causing huge amounts of damage, particularly as it is extremely prolific. "We are closely monitoring the situation and trying to find products against which this animal has not yet developed resistances," explained Emanuele Mazzoni, a researcher in the Dipartimento Produzioni Vegetali Sostenibili della Facoltà di Agraria (Department of Sustainable Plant Production at the Institute of Agricultural Studies), at the end of August.
"We are facing a very big problem, added Filippo Arata, president of the Piacenza Ainpo Cooperative, and we are calling on regional authorities to intervene. Fields that have been infested by this mite lose at least 50% of their crop."

Against this threat, a project is still being developed that intends to use drones to protect crops from the red spider. According to the president of the Association of agricultural service companies for the Cremona region, growers could have access to this kind of equipment as soon as the coming harvest season. "Our companies are investing in increasingly elaborate agricultural equipment, with which we are carrying out specialized work on behalf of growers. Over the years, the strong synergy built up between farmers and company leaders has allowed all parties to reach the critical mass required to overcome problems in this increasingly difficult sector." 
"Among the tools that we are using to assist the farming community, agricultural drones represent the main current innovation and an increasing number of our support operators are also offering this service. The main idea is to use the technology not only to map out the fields and obtain multispectral images to help with cultivation decisions, but also to intervene in the area of plant health defense thanks to predatory insects. The environmental advantages of this approach are obvious, in addition to the fact that a drone has virtually no impact on crops." 

In the area of processing tomato cultivation, the main operational use of a quadcopter drone is to take part in the biological war against red spiders. As it is already done in the fight against corn borers, the drone can fly over infested fields and deliver biodegradable capsules containing a predatory insect with extreme accuracy and at exactly the right moment. 
Field trials will begin in 2019 and are likely to include the dissemination of Phytoseiulus persimilis, a predatory mite that has been successfully used around the world as an organic agent in fighting against the red spider (Tetranychus urticae).
Female Phytoseiulus persimilis are slightly larger than red spiders, very mobile, and are characterized by their skill in searching out prey and exploring wide surfaces. They also can develop faster than their prey when provided with optimal conditions. 
In addition to the very low impact of drones on the crops, one of the advantages of this technique is to allow treatments to be carried out even after heavy rains. The only impediment is extreme high wind conditions. Furthermore, drones can fly over several hectares of crops in just a few minutes. Finally, drones can be used just about anywhere and easily transferred from one field to another, unlike self-propelling nacelle platforms that require external means.


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