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Hernando High students learning to use drones to address issues in agriculture

Published Oct. 7, 2015

BROOKSVILLE — Beware the insect or fungus that might try to infest a field of crops that a group Hernando High School students might one day be monitoring. The students are participating in a new program that can potentially stop the invaders before they get started.

They are learning how to use unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, in the Advanced Concepts in Agriscience class taught by Rick Ahrens.

"We were one of 10 schools in the state of Florida to pilot the project," Ahrens said. "We were asked, probably, by our reputation."

The program is being funded by the Gaetz Institute, which is part of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Florida Department of Education.

"We're always looking for new opportunities to stay on the cutting edge of what's out there," Ahrens said.

The UAVs, different from typical drones because they do not have wings, according to Ahrens, are quad copters, and the school has several of them. They have four propellers, and are about 18 inches to 2 feet across.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that students learning to use the vehicles do so indoors. Ahrens uses the gymnasium.

"What kids will be able to do down the road is fly UAVs with cameras. They will be able to spot insects, fungus and drought stress," Ahrens said.

They will then report to farmers, who can make the necessary adjustments in isolated areas instead of treating entire fields.

"It's called precision agriculture," Ahrens said.

"The possibilities are endless," he said. "One of the big things is it saves resources."

The technology also will provide earlier control of problems.

Ahrens took a class to prepare him to teach students how to use the UAVs. "I spent 72 hours this summer training for it at the Unmanned Safety Institute in Orlando," he said.

This first year, there are six students in the class at Hernando High. "It'll expand in the future" Ahrens said.

The first semester covers operation procedures. "They have to be able to understand the limitations of the equipment," Ahrens said.

The second part of the course is agriculture application. At the end, successful students will be certified by the Unmanned Safety Institute as small UAV operators.

Ahrens gives credit to Hernando High principal Leechele Booker for allowing the school to participate in the program.

"She sees the opportunities for our kids," he said.

Senior Jacob Whelan and junior Justin Walker are taking the class.

"I chose it because it's going to be a great opportunity in my future," said Whelan, 17. "I definitely want to go into the agriculture field."

After finishing at Hernando High, he hopes to attend either the University of Florida or Kansas State University.

Said Walker, 16: "I was always interested in UAVs, and when we got the class I was pretty excited. We can go and use them and talk to farmers. We can use them for crop inspection."

He said he is interested in a possible career operating UAVs.

"There aren't many UAV pilots out there," he said, "so there's a demand for them.