Creating the savvy farmer

STAFF PHOTO BY CINDY KUBOVIC Dr. Joe Maja, with Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, controls a drone he developed and built to measure whether a farmer’s crop is healthy.

BLACKVILLE — Dr. Joe Maja wants to change the way of farming, just by adding drones and other pieces of technology.

“Right now, farmers are using old-school techniques; we can’t blame them, that’s their livelihood, and they can’t wait for someone to come in,” said Maja, with Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center.

“But they are slowly doing what we call ‘precision agriculture,’ which is to bring technology slowly to farmers ...,” he said. “Back in the day, your plat for a farmer is probably (smaller), so farmers can look at each of those plants. But now farms are getting bigger and bigger, and it’s becoming difficult to look at all the plants.”

Maja specifically deals with developing new technologies for an everyday farmer’s use.

One piece of technology he developed is called a “pup”; it’s small and can transmit data on soil moisture to the Internet.

“We build this for farmers so they don’t have to exactly go out to the farm; they can instead open their computers at home and look at their soil to see whether it needs water,” Maja said.

“We haven’t released it yet, but with things like this, this is our mission. We want to develop technology and impact how farmers take care of their land.”

Maja has also developed what he calls an “intelligence sprayer controller” that can spray the crops. Another project of Maja’s is a piece of software that measures starch in cotton, and another can measure soil compaction.

“It is very difficult here in South Carolina because your soil has different characteristics, even from 2 feet to 3 feet away,” Maja said. “It’s very important for farmers to know their soil because you want to know exactly where sand is and know the amount of nutrients or water that the area needs.”

One of the larger pieces Maja has been developing, but also one of the more precise, is a drone that collects data to limit human interaction on a farm.

“We can collect an image of a farmer’s crop, take a picture and be able to tell the health of a plant,” Maja said. “All we can do is send a drone to a specific point; it will go there and wait for our command or it can collect data all on its own. We’re trying to minimize the human interaction because if you minimize error by humans and instead use drones, you have a very good system.”

Using an infrared picture, the drone’s picture shows light and dark pigments – dark means a plant is OK. If orange, the plants might have some issues, but gray means the area is either sand or has no water at all.

“We can do this in less than five minutes, and when we collect the data, it’s just one shot of multiple shots combined together and then we can process that information,” Maja said.

Maja hopes to have some of these technologies out by the end of the year for farmers’ use. Until then, he keeps building.

“I always ask them (farmers) what’s their dream,” Maja said. “I ask them, ‘What do you want me to build you?’”

Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.