AVON PARK — On a recent Saturday, cadets from the Avon Park High School (APHS) Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) drone team took to the skies and completed overfly missions at Hari-OM Chandra Farmland off Butler Road in Avon Park. The purpose of the flights was to give the cadets real field experience in mapping a farm with the intent to analyze the photographs taken.

The cadets were actively engaged in the overall process, completing three flights of the 10-acre farm. They will use the PIX4D software donated by the Highlands Soil & Water Conservation District to produce a large mosaic map and a red, green and blue (RGB) highlighted map to begin their study of photogrammetry, a process of recording, measuring and interpreting photographic images. By flying their missions at varying altitudes, the cadets can develop maps of varying resolutions to try and understand the condition and health of vegetation, water sources and other terrain features.

After the drone flights, Hemchand Tularam, the farm owner, gave the cadets a tour of the Eastern style of farming. They learned about different trees and plants working symbiotically to support each other’s growth and survival. They also learned the medicinal effects of different plants. As they went around the farm, many of the cadets took the opportunity to sample the crops straight from the source. As Tularam explained the flavors or effects on taste buds, the cadets were quick to experiment. The farm operates year-round and can be found at etsy.com/shop/HariOMChandraFarm

Started five years ago with one cadet, the team has grown to 10 cadets wanting to learn about drones and drone operations. Under the supervision of an FAA-certified drone pilot, the cadets take turns teaching each other various components to complete safe operations. Before they walk out the door, they make the determination of whether or not the weather or other conditions are safe for the flight. All missions begin with a weather report and a mission plan briefing that cadets pull from a weather website. These weather reports require deciphering and the cadets challenge each other on a regular basis to read them the quickest. They each understand what their purpose is and who will do what task for a successful mission.

The APHS AFJROTC provides extracurricular opportunities in drones, rocketry, drill and ceremonies, color guard, fitness and many others. Multiple academic and physical options are available. Starting in the 2021-2022 school year, first year freshman cadets will earn their Personal Career and School Development Skills requirement and online education component graduation requirements. If a student completes two years of AFJROTC, they not only earn elective credit but satisfy their performing arts and half of their physical education graduation requirement.

The cadets currently are flying an aging DJI Phantom 3 Advanced drone. This platform flies at approximately 25 mph and takes quality images for analysis. The limitation is the age and many locations have discontinued servicing. Also, many software programs are no longer updating versions for compatibility.

The cadets are actively fundraising to acquire an agriculture specific drone with a special camera to better read crop conditions. They started fundraising this year to acquire some smaller drones to teach basic flight skills. Four Ryze Tello drones were donated and flown all school year.

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