Tech school students using drone in agriculture program

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Farm Forum

MITCHELL (AP) — After weeks of sitting in the classroom, several Mitchell Technical Institute students were able to spend a few hours outside earlier this month — flying a drone.

The drone, which was purchased for $49,995 by MTI in June, was being used by precision agriculture students to survey land, taking high resolution images.

The students took instruction from Devon Russell, the precision agriculture technology department head and instructor. Russell was required to attend training and become certified before flying the Trimble UX5. For five days, and eight hours each day, Russell was learning the ins and outs of the Trimble drone before the institution was allowed to purchase the device.

“It’s the future,” Russell said.

The students spent several minutes making sure everything was in place, going through a flight check-list and completing all of the steps before the launch.

Once the drone took flight, Russell said it pretty much “flies itself.”

Before launching, the students created a flight plan in class for the area they wanted to survey. The drone downloads the plan, automatically calculates how it needs to fly the area, and does the rest on its own.

Russell said the flier has controls for any required evasive maneuvers, but other than that “it’s going to keep its course and survey everything.”

There are regulations that must be followed, Russell said, and one important rule is to be in communication with the airport. If the drone is being flown within five miles of the airport, Russell said he has to call the airport and let them know they will be flying the drone in the area.

The drones, which can go up to 60 mph, can go up thousands of feet into the air. But the maximum altitude allowed under regulation is 400 feet, Russell said.

Russell said the goal is getting his students certified to fly drones, and after they graduate, they can fly commercially.

“It’s brand new technology everyone is interested in,” Russell told The Daily Republic. “Once they have their certification on their resume, that will really put them above other people.”

In March, MTI received approval from the Mitchell Board of Education to purchase the drone. The lone bid, from Scott Supply of Mitchell.

Seth Weeman, an ag technology instructor, said the best part of the drone is that it provides another avenue to bring precision data back to the classroom.

And the new technology is not only going to impact the precision agriculture students, but the entire agriculture department at MTI, Weeman said.

Having a drone and using it in class has caused Weeman and Russell to change the way they structure their classes, but it’s a good change.

“Precision is one of those fields that every year you kind of reevaluate your curriculum and see what’s relevant and what isn’t anymore,” Weeman said. “And so for this year, I can’t say we’ve removed anything, but this has certainly been a huge addition to the program.”

For the precision agriculture students, they are happy they can get out of the classroom and gain some hands-on experience with the drone.

Marie Demerath, a first-year precision agriculture student, chose MTI because of the program, which is bigger than other schools she considered.

Demerath said if she decides to go into crop scouting, she will have the experience she needs.

For the past few weeks, Demerath and her classmates have been learning how to operate the drone, and set up flight plans on the computer.

But the best part, Demerath said is going out and flying the drone.

“It’s hands-on,” Demerath said. “Actually getting to do it ourselves and not just watching.”

Weeman said the drone has created more opportunity for students to spend time outside of the classroom and become proficient in the technology.

The drone, which has a battery life of about 50 minutes, allows instructors to “really mix it up,” Weeman said, and gets students outside doing more practical work.

“I think that’s where the tech school is shining,” he said. “We’ve got a good mix of theoretics and practical applications here at the land labs.”

Moving forward, Russell said there are plans to purchase another drone that hovers versus the Trimble UX5, which does not have these capabilities.

Right now, Russell said it’s important to implement the technology and the data it delivers into all of the classes.

“The most important part is not the actual drone flying, but the data you collect and what you do with the actual data,” Russell said. “You’re going to get a pretty picture, but what are you actually going to do with it.”