Experimental evaluation of UAV spraying for peach trees of different shapes: effects of operational parameters on droplet distribution

Small-scale plant protection Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are finding a wide range of applications in modern agriculture management (including aerial spraying) due to their high efficiency and flexibility, low labour/water requirement and no damage to crops and soils, which substantially increase agricultural productivity and sustainability. UAV operational parameters, however, have remarkable effects on droplet distribution in UAV spraying, which significantly affect pesticide utilization rate and treatment effectiveness. Therefore, this work aimed to evaluate the effects of UAV operational parameters on droplet distribution for orchard trees. In particular, peach, an important orchard tree worldwide, is investigated in this study, and two typical tree shapes were considered including Y-shape and Central Leader (CL)-shape. Specifically, UAV spraying experiments were performed in Shandong Institute of Pomology, Shandong Province, China, and gas powered helicopter 3WQF120-12 was chosen as the spraying platform. The UAV operational parameters under consideration include flight route (intra-row, inter-row), flight velocity (four levels: 2, 3, 4, 5 m/s), number of spray times (1 vs 2) and nozzle flow rate. Droplet coverage rate at different positions and layers, obtained by water sensitive papers, was chosen as the metric to evaluate spraying performance. Experimental results show that: (1) the spraying uniformity is different between Y-shape and CL-shape peach tree, where Y-shape exhibits uniformity for positions at inner or outer layers. CL-shape results in a higher droplet coverage at top layer while with uniformity at lower three layers; (2) for Y-shape peach, intra-row route obtained a higher droplet coverage rate; while for CL-shape peach inter-row not only saved spraying volume but also results in a higher droplet coverage rate; (3) for both tree shapes, the increase in flight velocity (2–5 m/s) significantly decreased the droplet coverage rate; (4) for Y-shape peach with doubling the number of spraying times decreased the spraying performance for unit area. (5) for CL-shape peach with intra-row route, increasing the nozzle flow rate from 1.8 to 2.2 L · min−1 can significantly improve the droplet coverage rate at top and bottom two layers. It is envisioned that this study can provide some fundamental guidance of the operation of small UAVs for the aerial spraying of peach trees and similar orchards.