People living near the Southeast Purdue Agricultural Center near Butlerville, Ind., likely saw unmanned aerial vehicles in the air early and often during the growing season. It wasn’t a secret agent trying to spy, and it wasn’t Amazon testing package delivery by drone. Most of the time, it was likely Alex Helms learning how to use a UAV to see what was happening in crop fields.
“We figured out quickly that we could spot things from the air with the UAV that we wouldn’t notice just driving by a field,” he says. He can fly the UAV at a maximum of 400 feet. For closer views, he can fly as low as 6 feet.
Here’s one example of how Helms used SEPAC’s UAV to help detect and identify a crop growth problem this season. “We noticed spots where soybean plants were missing in a 29-acre field,” he recalls. “It was evident in the UAV flight with a regular camera.”
Helms can watch on a screen during the flight as the UAV takes pictures. Afterward, he can use a service to stitch the pictures into one image of the field. Typically, a UAV camera may snap nearly 300 photos of a field per flight.
Helms marked points where he could see missing plants. Once the UAV returned safely home, he walked to the spots where it appeared plants were missing.
“We quickly determined that the damage was caused by voles in our no-till soybeans,” he says. “There isn’t much remedy for voles, either before or after they do damage, so we couldn’t take any action to help yield this year.”
One big question is whether or not UAV scouting pays. “It’s difficult to determine if it helped to know in the short run what caused the missing stand,” Helms says. “But it’s good information to have when making decisions for future crops.”