Can we use drones to better manage our soybean crop? We think so and intend to set out to validate it through a case study in 2016. So stay tuned and learn more.

The last two years we have heard a lot about using drones to capture images of crops and about everything else we can think of. There are a number of aerial platforms available now, some quite inexpensive depending on the type of aircraft and camera. Copters are much less expensive than fixed wing aircraft and either can be configured with an RGB (visual) or IR (infrared) camera.

Many people have bought drones (UAVs) more for recreation than as management tools. Now it’s time to move from having fun to beginning to use this tool as a way to better manage soybeans. Aerial imagery is nothing new and has been available from satellites or planes for many years now. But those images where never incorporated into making better management decisions. So adoption always lagged the technology.

For the past two years much of the hype and excitement has been about the aircraft platform. But the real value is in the cameras and the images they collect. An RGB camera collects three basic colors—red, green and blue—in the visible spectrum. An infrared camera records infrared energy and converts it to a thermal image that shows the impact of stress on the plant. It can also be used to determine an NDVI value, which is calculated using the visible and infrared light reflected by the plants.

These images can you tell you a lot about the health and progress of the crop in the field. And anyone who has flown over their fields in a small plane recognizes that the crop looks totally different from above than from the road or field edge.

The Illinois Soybean Association is engaged in a case study this summer to evaluate the use of drone imagery and software to better manage soybeans. The partners in this project are John Mills, producer from Vermillion County; Horizon Precisions Systems from Champaign, who will provide the fixed wing aerial platform; AgSolver, provider of the GIS software platform for layering in images; and Syngenta, who will provide an agronomist who will ground truth what the images will reveal. The objective of the project is to fly fields frequently over the season and use the information to develop strategies for incorporating this new technology into managing soybeans to improve profitability.

I have no preformed conclusions as to what we will learn. But I do know crops reveal their moods and health from above, and we can use this information to better manage them.

Stay tuned to the ILSoyAdvisor to learn more over the season.

Agronomist Dr. Daniel Davidson posts blogs on agronomy-related topics. Feel free to contact him at

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About the Author: Dan Davidson

Soybean agronomist Daniel Davidson, Ph.D., posts blogs on topics related to soybean agronomy. Feel free to contact him at or ring him at 402-649-5919.