Unique approach to cover crop seeding takes flight

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Tom Leitgen (left) is developing the Aeroseeder, a drone that can carry out cover crop seeding, on the family farm in rural Garnavillo. He said the effort will make cover crop seeding more efficient and affordable. He’s pictured with Spencer Gull, who’s helped with the project. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Although Leitgen can operate the Aeroseeder with a controller, the “robotic flying disc spreader,” as he calls it, can also fly autonomously. “I have a tablet and it’s got a map on it, and you get a satellite image of your area and click a few dots around your map. It automatically lays out a grid for you. You tell it what your spread width is, how fast you want it to fly, how high you want it to fly, when it’s going to start dumping, when it stops dumping, then you push a button and away it goes,” he remarked. This year, he hopes to seed 18 acres per hour.

The Aeroseeder prototype is near what Leitgen said could be a production model drone. The Iowa Economic Development Authority agreed, this summer awarding the company a $25,000 proof of commercial relevance (POCR) loan for product refinement, equipment and key personnel. 2020 will include final development tests and research, perfecting what he described as a cost-effective, robust and easy to use commercial ready drone to hopefully sell on the market for around $10,000 next year.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

A Clayton County company is working to build the country’s first drone seeders to carry out cover crop seeding, an effort developer Tom Leitgen said will make the practice more efficient and affordable—while potentially revolutionizing the drone industry.

“It isn’t really a drone we slap some kind of thing on so we can drop seed out of it,” Leitgen explained of the Aeroseeder. “I like to call it a robotic flying disc spreader because it’s totally automated.  Basically, it’s a disc spreader we put together and made fly.”

The idea dates back six years, when Leitgen’s father, Loyal, became interested in utilizing cover crops on the family’s Elmwood Farm, outside Garnavillo. 

“The family farm has always been very conservation oriented. We always considered ourselves to be early adopters of different conservation methods,” Leitgen shared. “We did terraces 25 to 30 years ago. We’re also a no-till farm. When cover crops started becoming popular, my father was quick to jump on the bandwagon.”

Loyal liked the idea of aerially applying cover crops in the pre-harvest stage. This would put foliage on the ground after the fall harvest, helping to prevent soil erosion and compaction and maintaining the health of the ground. Early on, he contracted with aerial providers through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to do aerial-seeded cover crops. 

But it was not without some problems. One had to do with the timeliness of the cover crop application. 

“Crop dusters who are doing this are a really busy bunch. Most of their activity is geared toward the spraying industry, so the cover crop seeding, especially at the time, was kind of a secondary job,” said Leitgen. “The first couple times he did it ended up being a little late in the application period, so the covers didn’t take off very well.”

This wasn’t a shortcoming of the airplane itself, he stressed, but a shortcoming of the industry that didn’t have the equipment to service an up and coming practice. 

“This could represent tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, in additional investment that would have to be made,” Leitgen noted.

So Loyal approached his son, a long-time aviation enthusiast who was running a grain treatment facility in Ethiopia.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you build a drone that can do that work? A drone would be inexpensive, easy to operate and considerably safer than a manned aircraft doing this type of application,’” Leitgen stated. “I said ‘OK.’” 

The Leitgens contracted their first drone to be built in Germany, but it ended up being sold to someone else. 

“So I was looking at the industry in general and my question was ‘Why do I have to import this from somewhere? Why should they be building it in China or Germany?’” Leitgen wondered. “This is an activity we do here in Iowa extensively, and agriculture is our thing. This should be something we can do in Iowa and export to other people because we are the experts.” 

After a 20-year professional career overseas, Leitgen returned to Clayton County. He started development in 2017, with a little drone that could carry five pounds, and seeded about 10 acres of annual ryegrass. In 2018, Leitgen built a bigger drone that could carry a 30-pound payload, and completed 35 acres. Last year, he worked to perfect the design, using another 30-pound aluminum drone that was an upgraded version of the 2018 model. They seeded 420 acres with a mix of annual ryegrass, radish and turnip. It was a little less than a third of all the aerial-seeded acres in Clayton County. 

“I did that with one little drone,” Leitgen explained. “We were doing about 10 acres an hour, so 40 hours of work in the field.”

This year, with a second battery charger to create a faster turnaround, Leitgen hopes to do 18 acres per hour.

“The idea was originally to have more batteries, but then you catch up to yourself sooner or later if you can’t charge fast enough. It flies with two battery packs for each flight, then every flight you have to change the pack. I fly with 10 battery packs, so five sets of batteries to do my work. You use them up quite quickly,” he shared. “When we were seeding 30 pounds down, we were using a mix that was 10.5 pounds an acre, then I could do three acres a flight. One flight would only take four minutes, so you really have to turn that over to keep moving.”

Although Leitgen can operate the Aeroseeder with a controller, the robotic flying disc spreader can also fly autonomously, with no input from Leitgen during flight. 

“I have a tablet and it’s got a map on it, and you get a satellite image of your area and click a few dots around your map. It automatically lays out a grid for you. You tell it what your spread width is, how fast you want it to fly, how high you want it to fly, when it’s going to start dumping, when it stops dumping, then you push a button and away it goes. It’s really quite simple,” he remarked.

The Aeroseeder prototype is near what Leitgen said could be a production model drone. The Iowa Economic Development Authority agreed, this summer awarding the company a $25,000 proof of commercial relevance (POCR) loan for product refinement, equipment and key personnel.

2020 will include final development tests and research, perfecting what he described as a cost-effective, robust and easy to use commercial ready drone to hopefully sell on the market for around $10,000 next year.

“I think we’ve made a good aircraft,” he quipped.

Leitgen said farmers have already shown interest. While spraying options are plentiful, seeding is much more limited. Properties are often too wet, preventing a tractor from driving over them, the terrain is unsuitable for an airplane because of trees or steepness, or the acreage is just too small to warrant bringing in a big airplane. 

“I think there is a need for some kind of seeding aircraft,” he stated.

The drone would be affordable enough for an individual farmer to purchase or for them to contract seeding work out to commercial operators. With a commercial drone license, almost anyone could operate it. 

“I would see, in five years, somebody driving up with a trailer that has three or four drones on it, then he pushes a button and these all fly out and do the application as fast and effectively as anything we do today. It would be a lot safer and cheaper to have it done,” Leitgen said. “This is just going to grow and grow as an industry. Because of the millions of acres that need to be treated around the U.S., I’d say the potential agricultural application industry dwarfs any other application on the market today, including drone delivery. The farm is a great place to develop aircraft that could expand into many different things.”

Making cover crop seeding more readily available would also result in more resource conservation. 

“We have to conserve our land for future generations. We want the top soil here on our farms,” Leitgen said. “This is not just an Iowa issue or American issue, but a world issue. What we do matters, with clean water, better production and hopefully better business.”

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