Precision agriculture management practices may become even more precise and more widely used, thanks to University of Illinois (U of I) researchers. They've developed a unique, remote-controlled mini-helicopter equipped with a camera that takes color and infrared field map images.

Measuring about 3×4 ft., this miniature prototype helicopter easily flies overhead, snapping single pictures with a camera mounted on the front. Here, precise images of specific crops and whole fields are taken that can help farmers calculate weed and insect pressure, applications of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, or even detect nitrogen stress on crops by changes in canopy color.

“Offering farmers a good, high-resolution image of their field crops is an important and useful tool in precision agriculture,” says Lei Tian, U of I of ag engineer with the Illinois Laboratory for Agricultural Remote Sensing (ILARS). Tian says the images captured by the miniature helicopter offer superior quality compared to satellite images or conventional planes at higher altitudes.

“Most of the current remote sensing systems aren't advanced enough yet to create good maps of the fields,” he says. “Weather conditions and other uncontrollable factors, such as the timing of when photos can be taken, have also made it cumbersome for researchers and farmers to make just-in-time crop management decisions.”

It was also difficult finding and scheduling pilots with planes who could be available at the right time to fly over fields, Tian says. “So that's when we turned to the idea of developing a remote-controlled, miniature helicopter that could take photos of fields at the right time and place for the farmer,” he says.

Unlike model airplanes that are now often used to capture field images, the miniature helicopter offers the operator some added flexibility. Less take-off area is needed with the remote-controlled helicopter. Tian says the operator has good control over the mini-helicopter's ground speed and flight elevation. Such capabilities enhance the accuracy of the images.

The Remote Sensing Lab is also developing standardized software programs, allowing operators to better interpret field images for making crop management decisions.

Although the prototype mini-helicopter now requires two people to operate it (one to control the helicopter, the other to control the camera), Tian and his co-workers are presently developing software to operate an “autopilot” system.

“Operating the mini-helicopter will become much easier by simply pushing an autopilot button,” says Tian. “The helicopter will take off and fly to the desired location, take the necessary photos and then come back and land itself. Our software and autopilot system will allow the operator to preprogram flight instructions and field coordinates using global positioning system technology.”

Once the system is refined, along with the bundled software programs, Tian says the future holds great promise for using this equipment to scout fields extensively and create detailed aerial maps for farmers.

“This work being conducted by Tian addresses a real opportunity that will benefit corn and soybean growers,” says Kraig Wagenecht, executive administrator of the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research, an organization that helped fund the project and also supports ILARS. “It's important for producers to have technologies that will effectively manage input costs and meet environmental concerns. This futuristic technology will do just that.”

It's too early to say who may manufacture these mini-helicopters or how much they will cost, says Tian. “A year from now it's likely that cooperatives, crop consulting firms and chemical and fertilizer dealers will be some of the first to offer and use this equipment.”