UAVs can enhance crop scouting
Every year growers and agronomists hit the fields to assess pest management, nutrient issues, equipment performance and a long list of other valuable crop information. Many of us enjoy it; Mother Nature is pretty amazing to watch work even in something as common as corn and soybean fields.
Early in the season it’s pretty easy to load up all the tools we need on an ATV and cover a lot of ground quickly. But soon crops are too big, and an ATV isn’t a workable option; walking is about it. Carrying pest ID books, a camera, tape measure, sample baggies, shovels and knives, even with a backpack, can be cumbersome.
No matter how much equipment you jam into the backpack, it never fails that the information on an obscure crop issue or pest is back in the truck or office. And, my personal favorite mid-to-late season scouting activity always seems to happen well after the ATV scouting window has passed — returning to look for the spade I left somewhere in the middle of a field.
‘Low tech’ tools still useful
A few years ago, a team of us at Iowa State University put our heads together with folks at the Iowa Soybean Association and several industry partners and created a series of field guides. We wanted to make identifying pests, diseases, disorders and developmental stages in our crops easier.
The pocket-size guides were designed to be portable and durable (yet affordable if they need replacing), with versions covering corn management, soybean management, weed identification, soybean cyst nematodes and soybean aphids. They’ve been a hit, and several of these handy guides are already on second editions.
We followed up with even more: portable scouting “cards” covering a broad range of corn and soybean management issues. The series includes nine scouting cards: early, mid- and late-season soybean scouting; early, mid- and late-season corn scouting; and problem-specific cards for white mold, soybean aphid and stinkbugs. The cards are used on a field-by-field basis with room for notes for scouting observations and to help with recordkeeping and tracking pest problems over time if a scout wants to archive them. The field guides and scouting cards lightened the load in our pickups and backpacks considerably, but for folks who are fairly tech-savvy, the pack can get even lighter.
Adding tech lightens load
While surveys indicate most growers and many agronomists rely heavily on hard-copy crop scouting reference materials, more are rapidly adopting ebooks, PDFs and apps used in crop scouting and diagnostics. To give another plug to the ISU field guides, many of them are available in PDF format for tablets and smartphones via the ISU Extension online store at store.extension.iastate.edu and from the Iowa Soybean Association at www.iasoybeans.com/programs/production-research/publications. The “Weed Identification Guide” alone was downloaded over a million times last I had heard; a lot of folks are adding electronic pubs into their scouting arsenal.
Apps are a huge hit as well, for folks brave enough to haul a tablet computer to the field, and with guys like me who feel better with the apps on a smartphone we can fit into our pocket for safekeeping. I have some favorites including ISU’s Field Records and Farm Progress’ Ag Weed ID to name a couple free ones. There are also some rock-solid paid apps. For example, some ISU ag students started a company called ScoutPro and turned our ISU field guides into scouting apps.
It’s also pretty handy that we can use tablets and smartphones in the field to get high-quality pictures we can send to other experts if needed (no more carrying a camera). We can also get maps and satellite field images (goodbye paper maps and plat books), and even take good notes and text or email them to clients and coworkers on the spot if we want.
Discussing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and satellite imagery (a topic worthy of several articles itself) available in scouting right now is really fun; the technology and innovative uses are evolving faster than in any industry. In this June column we’re focusing on UAVs since growers can buy and implement them immediately, and the UAVs tend to supplement satellite imagery.
UAVs have come a long way from the remote-control airplane I had for about a week as a kid. It had a runtime of three minutes and could barely carry its own weight. Also, I blame poor radio controls and the wind for the times it flew into trees and the side of our machine shed. Today’s UAVs can do amazing things:
• interchangeable, rapid recharge batteries that minimize ground time and maximize airtime, with 20 to 30 minutes of flight time per battery change common
• manageable ranges up to a half-mile
• GPS to keep UAVs where they should be and guide their scouting; some hover in place over individual plants
• computer-aided flight controls for stability and safety
• powerful motors that carry cameras for high-resolution photos and video
UAV technology is advancing quickly; it’ll continue to get better and less expensive as adoption by a few key industries and public service sectors increase rapidly the next few years. UAVs with the impressive abilities listed above can cost over $10,000 today; they may well be available on the shelf of your local superstore for a fraction of that in a few short years as newer and more impressive models evolve.
McGrath is the ISU Extension field agronomist at Harlan in western Iowa. Contact him at [email protected].
This article published in the June, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
Precision Farming Technology (Equipment)