The HexCopter unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.

The HexCopter unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.

During the off-season this winter, some Iowa farmers are kicking the figurative tires on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to help with their operations in the spring.

Tom Junge, director of the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, says the small remote-control vehicles essentially come in two types, those that fly like airplanes and those that can hover like helicopters, and both could be a big help to growers.

“They can scan the fields and they can actually check for weed pressure or maybe if there’s some planting problems,” Junge says. “We’re also going to start seeing much more with different images that can be done, even scanning and checking the nitrogen in the plants.”

UAVs offer a new form of crop scouting. Equipped with a camera and the correct software on the ground, they can give growers the ability to quickly check on crop health. Software can be used to stitch aerial shots into a high-resolution mosaic map that can be used to make better crop management decisions.

A UAV may look like a kid’s toy, but they have a long range and are extremely versatile. Junge says a farmer may be able to purchase a basic quad-copter with a video camera for a few hundred dollars. “Those aren’t going to be real high-priced but if you want to get more sophisticated, it might be $1,000 or $2, 000,” Junge says. “It’s going to rely more on what you’ll equip it with and the software that comes with it and then when you collect this data, what you’re going to do with it.”

UAVs can provide farmers a bird’s eye view of everything from irrigation and fertilizer problems to soil variations and even pest and fungal infestations. They can also take multi-spectral images — infrared and visual spectrum — which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights the difference between healthy and distressed plants.

While there’s a lot of interest in UAVs, the legality of flying them is still an issue, for farmers and everyone else. Junge says, “From my understanding, if he’s just doing his own area, he’s okay, but if it goes outside that, then he becomes commercial and everyone’s waiting to see how the Federal Aviation people are going to rule on that.”