LAFAYETTE, La. — Taking a cue from America’s use of drones to fight terrorists, the war on feral hogs has gone high tech and high altitude.
Two friends in Lafayette, La. modified a remote control aircraft for their frequent hunts for the destructive wild pigs. It's more military op than hunting trip.
"It's not hunting,” said James Palmer. “It's extermination."
Palmer and hunting business partner Cy Brown are getting popular with farmers who pay the pair to rid their fields of pigs. The animals are mainly nocturnal. So, Brown and Palmer spend weekend nights on pig patrol.
Brown flies the plane fitted with a thermal imaging camera that sees through the darkness. It’s also fitted with a laser. They call their invention the "Dehogaflier."
When Brown spots hogs, he whispers radio commands to Palmer, who moves in with a night vision scope.
"Seventy-five yards in, turn left," Brown spoke into the radio as his plane circled silently above a dozen or so black dots, enemy movements plotted on a computer screen.
"One pig ahead," Brown said directing Palmer through rows of milo. "Ten yards, three rows left."
Suddenly, over the radio, shots rang out. Shell casings rattled and bursts of light illuminated the horizon.
"Let 'em have it James," Brown yelled.
There are few regulations and even less sympathy for hunting the hogs.
"I had a 40-acre field," said one rice farmer who did not want to be identified. "The whole thing was wiped out."
He estimated rice crop losses from pigs to be as high as $1,000 an acre.
On Cy Brown’s computer screen, looking down from the Dehogaflier, large swaths of damaged crops appeared.
"That's a quarter acre of rice right there in that spot that's just gone," he explained.
Brown and Palmer hunt barefooted because the soggy fields would pull off boots and it makes it easier to sneak up on the pigs. But, don’t mistake them for rustics.
"We develop electronics for a living for a variety of industries," Palmer said standing in one of several laboratories he supervises.
Clients include the defense department.
Palmer has two engineering degrees and an MBA.
Doing calculus at night as he listened for his prey, Brown hunted feral hogs to help pay college tuition -
"I turned in a lot of homework full of squished mosquitoes, pig blood and mud,” he laughs. “Nobody ever asked too many questions."
They both work for Raven Research and Development, a company Palmer founded.
They used their knowledge and laboratories to load up their plane with electronics.
"This is the magic piece,” Brown said. "The thermal camera on the airplane that for all intents and purposes makes pigs look like they're glowing in the dark."
It’s a breakthrough in the war on hogs that got them profiled in Time Magazine.
But, they're developing more sophisticated craft for all kinds of jobs drones might do some day.
"The FAA should be changing its laws for commercial use in 2015,” Palmer said. "And we plan to be on the forefront of that."
Until then, stalking from above, they spend weekend nights patrolling farms.
"James, they're bunched up in the corner man,” Brown said as he spotted a large line of hogs. "Holy smokes."
At about 4 a.m., the thermal camera spotted more pigs chewing through a rice field. Brown and Palmer stowed the plane and head out together.
With a dozen or more shots flash, it sounded like a stampede in the flooded rice field as the men waded into the water using night scopes.
When the smoke cleared, at least three large, black hogs were found dead. Two appeared to weigh more than 200 pounds.
As dawn broke, the men emerged from the misty fields.
Their Dehogaflier probably covered well over 1,000 acres during the night. It revealed a lot of damage, but not that many pigs, they said. They took it as a sign that it's starting to make a difference.