Growing up on his family's farm, Kyle Miller learned the art of reading crop leaves to detect issues such as nutrient deficiencies and infestations.
"My dad is a farmer, my grandpa is a farmer — farmers on the Miller side go back at least seven generations," the 21-year-old college student said while recently looking out on an a sea of soybeans on the farm between Iowa City and Kalona.
But Miller is taking a new approach to crop scouting, and one that would no doubt seem more akin to science fiction than farming to those of previous generations, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported .
For the past two months, Miller, a student at Dordt College in the northwest Iowa town of Sioux Center, has been flying a drone — technically an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV — over his family's farmstead and the research fields at his school. As part of his senior project, Miller has been testing the radio-controlled vehicle's ability to monitor crop conditions using infrared cameras.
The pursuit combines Miller's two areas of study, agribusiness and computer science, and signals the growing role that technology is playing on Iowa farms.
"I've been working in precision agriculture. I've also been doing GPS and auto-steer in tractors and combines, but this has really sparked my interest," said Miller before firing up his drone for a demonstration flight.
Before takeoff, Miller programmed the small drone with his laptop, setting a series of waypoints for the aircraft to follow. He then attached the lightweight drone — about 6-feet wide and made up of foam and carbon fiber rods — to a long bungee cord, pulled it taught, and let it go.
The propeller whirred to life, the drone rocketed skyward and within seconds it was buzzing about 350 feet overhead, crisscrossing the fields and shooting photos every two seconds. Miller held a remote control to assist with the landing, but the route was otherwise dictated by his laptop via a radio signal.
The drone was equipped with a pair of cameras taking infrared images that are geotagged to map the farmland below. After several passes over the field, the aircraft landed in a soft cushion of soybean plants not far from his front door
Miller explained that the infrared images can tell him which areas may be nitrogen deficient down to the individual crop — an important tool for farmers who can then be more precise with their nutrient applications.
"It's going to help us better understand what corn and soybean plants are going through, the different kinds of stresses," Miller said.
Jerry Anderson, regional manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said drones present a "huge potential" for agricultural use. Possible applications, experts say, include crop scouting, precision spraying, disease monitoring and livestock tracking, to name a few.
"You can overlay these with the mapping characteristics you can get from soil types and harvest maps, and you can literally farm by the foot and take action as you need to during the growing season and as conditions warrant," Anderson said.
Miller serves as a field representative for Agribotix, a company based in Boulder, Colorado, that leases agricultural drones and processes aerial images. The company has provided Miller with a drone, which he said contains about $8,000 in electronics, to test on his farm and at school. Miller also will represent the company at ag tradeshows and assist in product development.
Although Miller has been flying the aircraft over his family's farm — about 1,400 acres between his father and uncle's land — the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates drone usage, prohibits them from to be flown commercially. That means while Miller feels comfortable flying the drone at home and at school, he is unable to use the drone to scout fields for other farmers as a business.
Miller said he's hopeful that new FAA regulations will be enacted next year and open the door to commercial possibilities, and he's considering it as a potential career one day. The FAA has said it will issue new regulations for drones in 2015, and the rules are expected to allow for certain agricultural uses.
Miller sees drones becoming an important tool in crop management, if and when they get the green light from the FAA.
"If you're able to detect with your agronomist what's going to happen in your cornfield before it actually happens, you're going to be able to stop disease issues, you're going to be able to stop pests, or see if your corn or soybeans need different nutrients," Miller said.
Likewise, Farm Bureau's Anderson said while the cost could be a limiting factor initially, drones could one day be another beneficial piece of technology put to use on Iowa farms.
"There's a tremendous amount of applications for the innovators, and farmers are always tinkering with devices," Anderson said.