Unmanned aircraft have been cleared for takeoff above the farm fields at Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville.

The eyes in the sky will monitor crop health and gather data to improve farming efficiency and productivity by letting growers know precisely when and where to water, fertilize or spray crops. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) also quickly spot diseased livestock that require attention.

Joe Mari Maja, a research sensor engineer at the Edisto center, received Federal Aviation Administration approval in December to fly a UAV as part of his effort to technologize farming in South Carolina with the use of “intelligent agri-tronics devices.” These sensor technologies can be used on UAVs to collect a wide range of crop data quickly to help farmers improve soil quality and eradicate pests and disease. The UAVs allow for much quicker crop monitoring; a UAV can analyze a 10-acre field in less than five minutes, work that takes a person days or weeks to complete, Maja said.

“I believe the applications for this are just enormous,” said Maja, who has a background in computer engineering. “UAV is a game-changer in precision agriculture.”

Not only will the unmanned aircraft collect data more quickly, but Maja is working to make the data easier for farmers to interpret. He is developing sensors that can transmit crop data to such wearable devices as smart glasses. He’s also built prototype circuit boards that will allow UAVs to communicate directly with farm technology like irrigation systems.

“That’s my dream,” Maja said.

Clemson is renovating a laboratory at the Edisto center that will allow Maja to build and test prototypes rapidly. His work will result in new and improved sensors and UAVs designed for farmers.

Maja joined Clemson University’s precision-agriculture research program last year to develop techniques that can improve profitability and environmental sustainability in the state’s largest industry, agriculture. The S.C. General Assembly supports this program because of its economic impact on the state.

Precision agriculture reduces waste and optimizes farm equipment and materials by targeting the amount and locations of water, fertilizer and chemicals to the specific areas of a field where the products are needed. Maja’s work is particularly important in South Carolina, where fields are subject to high degrees of soil variability.