Farming, almost by definition, has to do with land. But farmers are increasingly looking up to find solutions to earthbound challenges.

Enter the Aeroseeder. Tom Leitgen and Ron Schneider hope the Iowa-based company is on to something big when it comes to cover crops.

The idea first came up when Leitgen was talking with his father after an attempt to seed a cover crop by hiring a crop dusting pilot. The crop was planted late and it didn’t do well. Leitgen’s father wanted a different approach, one that wouldn’t depend on a freelance pilot’s schedule.

“He is still today convinced that the best kind of cover crops to put on would be a pre-harvest cover crop which is seeded down in August or September,” Leitgen said. “And then you have to use some kind of aircraft or damage your crops.”

Why cover crops? Well, cover crops are a bit different than what most people think of with farming. The ability to harvest cover crops is less important than having something to hold the soil in place and keep nutrients from washing or blowing away between harvest and the next year’s planting. With the ground protected from winter storms, the hope is that it will be in better condition when spring planting arrives.

Cover crops are also being discussed as a potential solution to the issue of increasing nitrate levels in American rivers. The nutrients are blamed in large part for creating the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The zone has low oxygen levels and can kill fish and leave a large area almost empty. Nutrients in runoff encourage algae growth, but when the algae blooms die off the decomposing plants use up oxygen in the water.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts the 2021 zone will cover 4,880 square miles around the Mississippi River delta.

Concerns about nutrients in the water have some people calling for government intervention. So farmers are increasingly looking at solutions that might make such steps unnecessary.

Locally, farmers also use cover crops to help keep nutrients from leaching into groundwater. They can also help by providing weeds with competition and improving soil biology.

Leitgen’s contacts with remote control aircraft had his father thinking about a drone.

The Aeroseeder uses a 30-pound hopper and a spreader, attached to a drone’s propellers. The design focused first on the hopper-spreader combination, ensuring it would carry enough seed to be worth flying, then on how to get the contraption airborne.

“Something I like to say about how we looked at the problem and how we built the drone is instead of taking a drone and putting some kind of equipment on it, we took a disc spreader and taught it to fly,” Leitgen said.

Drones that accomplish similar tasks as the Aeroseeder are already in existence, but they tend to be aimed at much larger scale operations and come with a price tag to match. At $11,700 the Aeroseeder isn’t cheap, but it’s not going to be the most expensive equipment on most farms, either.

Schneider said the approach has trade offs. The drone can’t carry the amount of seed a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter can. But it can be flown by almost anyone and you don’t have to wait for takeoffs and landings at an airport. The 30-pound hopper can seed about three acres at a time with a density of 10 pounds per acre. And the pair said the Aeroseeder can do about 10 flights per hour.

“You’re right there. You’re at the fields, that’s where you’re doing your work with the drone. That’s where you’re refilling it with seed,” Schneider said. “So even though each run is relatively short, it’s a quick refill and back into the next round of seeding.”

Drones are also more suited for smaller fields and areas bordered by trees or power lines that could be tricky for a human pilot to fly a plane around. There has also been some interest in using it for wetlands restoration.

Schneider and Leitgen said the Aeroseeder is designed with the knowledge that most of its pilots won’t be particularly experienced in the use of drones. So it can run largely autonomously, and it’s built to be robust enough to handle some less-than-perfect landings.

In the long run, the hope is to have additional equipment that can make the Aeroseeder a year-round tool. Some companies have begun offering drone flights over fields to spot drought-stressed crops or pest infestations early. Leitgen said adding cameras to be able to handle those tasks is something the young company is looking at.

“You really have to optimize the way you’re handling your land. I think that the imaging could come at the forefront again,” he said. “So I’m working on some camera drones for these kinds of activities so that we can do this imaging.”

Early interest has been encouraging, but the first purchases have been for use in Germany and New Zealand. But the company has high hopes.

“It really is possible to handle it safely and to do the work yourself,” Leitgen said.

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