Anthony Machado, operations manager for Highland Precision Ag, checks on the flight plan as one of the company’s drones flies at Astin Farms in Plant City. / Photos by Tina Sargeant, Highland Precision Ag

Farmers are reaping the benefits of a couple of recent trends in their efforts to increase yields, reduce costs, and ease environmental impacts through a host of practices collectively dubbed “precision farming.”

Prices of aerial drones enabling this high-tech movement have been falling because of their skyrocketing popularity among hobbyists, photographers, and others. That, coupled with continuing, rapid advances in agricultural telemetry, metadata analysis, and research in recent years, has helped to turn these compact aircraft into valuable farm implements.

The drones are being used by growers of citrus, sweet corn, strawberries, peppers, potatoes, and many other crops that are the stalwarts of Florida agriculture, according to Steve Maxwell, owner and chief executive officer of Highland Precision Ag in Mulberry, a city a few miles south of Lakeland.

Steve Maxwell of Highland Precision Ag

Steve Maxwell of Highland Precision Ag. / Tina Sargeant, Highland Precision Ag

Some of the most beneficial uses that have made fixed-wing and helicopter drones attractive tools, he said, are assessments of crop health, detection of “thirsty” spots in fields, and pinpointing areas where fungicides or pesticides are needed when infestations are found. Sometimes, the drones even deliver those healing agents.

These functions are in addition to basic farm tasks that drones simplify, such as surveying the conditions of fields; fences; and infrastructure, including irrigation systems. These compact flying machines can also be found handling a wide range of other tasks: remote security monitoring; precision crop-dusting; seed dispensing and removal; material moving; general ground scouting; and, most important, as vehicles for high-resolution and infrared cameras and sensors that are used for soil and moisture analysis.

Drones can capture data for 600 acres a day

Supporting precision farming is Maxwell’s overriding goal. Some growers opt to hire companies such as his to monitor, improve, and economize their operations; others get their own drones and sensors, and they buy into the digital frameworks, built by companies like his, for data interpretation and tracking.

Since the 2014-15 growing season, Highland Precision Ag has been flying a fleet of drones, operated separately by various technician teams, above the fields of clients who grow citrus, berries, and many varieties of vegetables and greens cultivated in Florida and on the U.S. West Coast.

A team can survey and process information about the condition of up to 600 acres of farmland per day, and Maxwell’s company, which operates 24 hours a day year-round, so far has about 10 Florida clients whose spreads range from fewer than 20 acres to thousands of acres.

For growers who opt to buy their own drones, one resource is the website, The Palm Beach Drone Blog, created by owner/editor H. Shawn Holmgren provides a font of information and links to authoritative sources dealing with all things concerning unmanned aerial vehicles.

Highland Precision Ag

Christopher Crockett, Highland Precision Ag’s director of research and development (left); and Tyler Jacoby, Ph.D., agronomist and director of lab services, walk through a client’s field after taking tissue samples. / Tina Sargeant, Highland Precision Ag

More drones on the way

Both Holmgren and Maxwell note that new Federal Aviation Administration rule changes on commercial use of drones, set to take effect in late August, will simplify operators’ licensing and boost demand for the machines, as well as for services like those provided by Highland Precision Ag.

Holmgren said the boom in agricultural uses will continue, and expand. “The rule changes put a pathway in place that is more easily afforded and attained, to allow farmers to legally fly over the land they own.

“Guidelines announced on June 20 set forth a process that allows the use of drones for most commercial activities, without the burden of having to first become a recreational airplane pilot, which typically costs over $10,000 and takes months to accomplish. Now, compliance should cost less than $2,000 for an approved ground school.”

But the drones aren’t cheap: Would-be fliers can expect to pay upwards of $10,000 for a commercial precision drone and its integrated software.

“More small farmers and co-ops will look at using this tool to give them more precise estimates on the condition of crops, and reaction to a given problem like weed or pest infestation,” Holmgren said.

Companies like Maxwell’s handle compliance, but individuals will need to register their drones with the FAA and undergo training to gain certification.

Chris Felker writes and edits for various South Florida media, including Okeechobee – the Magazine and The Coastal Star. He has lived in Palm Beach County for over 30 years. Prior to becoming a freelancer, he served as an editor for The Palm Beach Post for 22 years.