- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

PLANT CITY, Fla. (AP) - A black drone with eight propellers and six cameras mounted on its belly zooms across Sam Astin’s strawberry field gathering data that can help him save money on production and reduce his farm’s carbon footprint.

Buzzing along at 350 feet, it takes the ground-controlled aircraft just 11 minutes and 16 seconds to pass over 22.5 acres and capture 219 images.

If a yellow patch shows up on the near-infrared photographs, that alerts the staff at Highland Precision Ag - and eventually, the grower - that there is an issue with some of the plants. The drone team can then come back with more specialized cameras and lenses to pinpoint exactly the problem the plants have encountered, whether that’s spider mites, mold or something else that could kill them or hinder peak production.

As the human population has increasingly encroached on this country’s farm fields, some growers have gotten a black eye for their use of chemicals and water, said Highland Precision Ag founder and President Steve Maxwell. He said the technology his company is refining can change that.

Over the next three years, the system Highland Precision Ag is developing will give farmers custom computer dashboards on which they can monitor their crops, follow recipes for treating disease and treat only those areas of their fields that need it.

“Most farmers today just broadcast chemicals” across their fields, Maxwell said. “We want to get to the point we can build a recipe with fertilizer or chemical companies, a customized treatment plan. That will reduce the footprint, environmentally, while still producing the yields we need to produce for a hungry world.”

Right now, he said, the technology “is like the clunker cellphone you had to hold with two hands. Technology is moving so fast, it’s changing every few months.” As it becomes more precise, his company’s system will be ready for use not only by berry farmers but those growing sugar cane, tomatoes, watermelons, citrus and more.

The key to the success of this venture is connecting software, research and the farmer, said Maxwell, who also owns Highland Packaging Solutions in Plant City, providing labeled containers used by berry, egg and vegetable farmers.

At a time when drones are reaching their height in popularity with recreational ground pilots, their entree into local farm fields has created some curiosity, Maxwell said. For farm neighbors, seeing the tiny aircraft buzzing overhead can be disconcerting, he concedes.

But fear not. While these drones may appear to be flying over nearby houses, they are only photographing farm fields outlined by GPS coordinates, said Wade Carter, director of sales and market research for Highland Precision Ag, based in Mulberry. “If a human did happen to get on one of the images, they would just show up as a red blob.”

“This really has nothing to do with drones except that those are the vehicles we use to collect information,” Maxwell said. That information is sent into cloud technology created by Amazon, where “big data” - huge data sets analyzed by computers to reveal patterns, trends and associations - is created to determine how to use the information.

Highland Precision Ag has a team of 15, including three drone operators, two software developers, a lab pathologist and a University of Florida Ph.D. student serving as the company’s entomologist.

“We are working with individual growers, finding out what they want and building their dashboards,” Carter said. “It will include everything a grower wants to see in their field - yield, spray history, individual crop monitoring.”

For Astin, who grows 1,200 acres of strawberries in Plant City and in southern Hillsborough County, the idea of cutting back on chemical and fertilizer use and learning how to best forecast how well the season will go is huge.

Watching recently as a drone flew over his fields off Trapnell Road in Plant City, Astin said he also likes the idea that he will be better able to forecast what his fields will produce and when, making it easier to set prices and market berries.

“We’ll be able to head off some issues and react and respond quicker,” said Astin, a third-generation Plant City farmer who also owns the Astin Strawberry Exchange to market and distribute the 40 million pounds of fruit his fields produce in a good year.

“Right now, we’re hitting low on production and the size of the fruit is way off,” due to unseasonably warm weather, Astin said. “With new technology, we could forecast that weeks in advance and that would tell us whether to hold the price up or down.”

Right now, Maxwell said, Highland Precision Ag is working with Astin and four other strawberry farmers, a major citrus grower and a major vegetable grower on research and development.

The company plans to have a pathology lab set up at its Mulberry office by March, where farmers can send plant samples and get back results within a couple of days instead of five days or a week, Maxwell said. The lab will determine what the problem is and prescribe necessary treatment.

Eventually, the system will include the ability to determine soil types in advance of planting so farmers will know how to amend it for the greatest production, Maxwell said. It will also be able to tell a grower the high and low spots on the land, so they’ll know how much irrigation crops will need and areas that might need less water. They will then be able to monitor the results and tweak accordingly.

Farmers will be able to look back at the data and use it to set expectations for future years.

Maxwell said he hopes to work with the state to develop a “precision grower” certification for farms that use technology like his company is developing. “I want Florida to be the first to have that defined designation. It’s adding to best management practices, going steps beyond that.

“Consumers will be able to walk into Publix and see organically grown fruits and vegetables, traditionally grown and precision grown using a minimum of fertilizer and chemicals,” Maxwell said. “It’s being responsible. That’s the message that needs to get out there.”

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Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, https://www.tampatrib.com

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