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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.

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 and from the Iowa Soybean Association at 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

New tools make scouting more efficient than ever

For now agriculture and, to some degree, emergency management, have been given some flexibility in using UAVs by FAA. Farmers can operate UAVs over their property if abiding by a few FAA rules: fly at altitudes below 400 feet, don’t operate in airspace within three miles of an active airfield, give way to manned aircraft and maintain visual line of sight of UAVs at all times.

On the commercial side, the rules aren’t so flexible. As I write this, a farmer can’t legally hire a consultant or crop scout to fly a UAV over the farmer’s fields. Things will become more clearly defined for the commercial use of UAVs in mid-to-late 2015 (or sooner) as FAA has been mandated to “open the airspace” for operation of UAVs.

What can you do with UAVs to enhance scouting? Almost anything done on foot or on an ATV can be done but faster: assessing evenness of stands; looking for foliar diseases, nutrient deficiencies, weed escapes, insects, spray drift and erosion; discovering and evaluating other abnormalities the camera shows; and adding thermal or multi-spectral imaging to assess crops.

Of course, cameras and computer programs help make the technology useful. We can’t use a UAV to collect soil samples, but it can guide us where to go quickly. If you can’t tell, I’m excited about UAV technology and wish I had the budget to jump on board.

It turns out everything mentioned above — spades, tape measures, hard-copy books, smartphones, electronic publications, apps, UAVs — work well together because they are tools used for a common purpose and complement each other well. Our job is to take those tools to the field and put them to work. Bottom line is technology may lighten the load and speed up the scouting process, but we still have to get boots on the ground in our fields, know what to look for and how to handle whatever is challenging our crops.

— Clarke McGrath

Buzzing fields

Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are a promising tool for farmers and crop consultants to use to scout fields. The small aircraft are outfitted with a camera capturing images and sending still photos or videos to a computer or smartphone.

Brent Johnson of Labre Crop Consulting in Manson is testing a UAV for crop scouting. “There is a lot of interest in UAVs for agricultural purposes, as people have been reading about them and listening to presentations at winter meetings the past few years,” he says. “They can save time and money in scouting fields for crop damage from pests, diseases or other issues.”

The legality of using UAVs in commercial operations such as crop consulting is still in question, notes Johnson. The industry is waiting on rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Technically, UAVs are cleared only for hobby uses, but FAA is working closely with several industries, including agriculture, to approve the aircraft for commercial use. Meanwhile, crop consultants can experiment with these devices as they wait for more clarity from FAA before fully integrating the UAVs into their crop scouting business. Farmers can fly UAVs over their own fields as long as they follow FAA’s hobby use guidelines.

— Rod Swoboda


CSI: Iowa


sKy high: Brent Johnson of Labre Crop Consulting in Manson says interest in UAVs is increasing among farmers and crop consultants to scout fields.

This article published in the June, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Precision Farming Technology (Equipment)

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