Florida farmers across the state are using the latest and greatest farming technology with unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, to take their operations to new heights, which benefits farming production and profits.
One company, Plant City-based Highland Precision Ag (HPA), is using cutting-edge technology to develop drones designed to help growers make quick, accurate decisions regarding crops such as strawberries, citrus and vegetables. Meanwhile, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation (FFBF) has created an unmanned aerial system training and certification program for the state’s high school students.
“It is believed that 80 percent of unmanned aerial systems will be used in agriculture,” says Frankie Hall, director of agricultural policy for the FFBF. “Florida will be one of the top five states in the U.S. using this technology because of the high-dollar crops we grow in our state.”
Refining Drone Technology
HPA’s drones will include two kinds of cameras to treat and diagnose crop issues. Drones will zoom over fields, using specialized cameras that capture images of electromagnetic wave data – revealing information about crops invisible to the naked eye.
With multispectral camera images, the drone can tell the difference between healthy plants and unhealthy plants. A hyperspectral camera will help determine a source of plant diseases.
Each drone will be equipped with six cameras, and all are capable of zoning in on their targets within 3.6 centimeters.
“The endgame here is for the grower to see the invisible,” says Steve Maxwell, HPA founder and president. “Because of this technology, growers can see plants going into distress before the human eye can catch it.”
The drones, which are being developed in partnership with a Department of Defense contractor and software developers, will save growers both time and money by quickly providing them with precise data. Growers will have custom computer dashboards where they can closely monitor their crops, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of pests, diseases and other disturbances.
For example, if a particular field is infested with spider mites, growers will know only to treat that area instead of their entire crop. Not only will this knowledge help the grower financially, it will also reduce their environmental impact.
“The passion for the farmer has always been at our heart and soul,” Maxwell says. “Our goal is for the grower to reach their full potential, and we want to be there to assist them.”
Certified to Fly
Developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Education and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the FFBF is offering an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) training and certification program in a dozen high schools across the state. Students who complete the UAV program, which is being implemented for the first time in 2016, will be certified to fly these vehicles in agriculture production settings.
The UAV program is one of six certification programs available to Florida’s high school students, all created through the Agricultural Educational Services and Technology Corp.
“We are ahead of the curve,” Hall says. “We’re trying to get the first part of the UAV training taken care of, and the rest of the training would occur after students graduate from high school. Right now, we’re not teaching the part dealing with imagining; we’re just focused on the flying.”
This curriculum has garnered national attention, and in January 2016, the FFBF received the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2016 New Horizon Award that recognizes effective, innovative initiatives developed by state farm bureaus.