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LRSC students study agricultural potential of unmanned aircraft

By   Anna Burleson, Grand Forks Herald
11/06/2014

Dr. Paul Gunderson gets excited when showing off equipment and talking about farming at Lake Region State College’s Precision Agriculture Center.

It’s his mission to make sure the students graduating from the Devils Lake, N.D., college’s precision agriculture program have a real-world grasp of skills they can utilize, including the use of unmanned aerial systems.

“While the unmanned aerial arena looks particularly enticing to producers, there’s an awful lot of crap,” Gunderson said. “There’s a lot of hype, and a lot of it is not very helpful.”

Currently the director of the center, Gunderson spearheaded the precision agriculture program at LRSC, which officially got off the ground in 2013.

Now with 47 students enrolled in the program, officials are optimistic about the budding industry and all it has to offer with unmanned aircraft. The small devices can be equipped with cameras, sensors and other technology that can analyze crops and livestock.

“This program has certainly taken off,” said Cathleen Ruch, the center’s student resource developer. “It’s been an incredible ride being a part of this program. It’s cutting edge and changing constantly.”

Eyes in the sky
As far back as the 1980s, some producers throughout the country figured out they could cut their costs substantially by using satellite imagery to analyze their crops.

In 2006, the Gunderson said LRSC began receiving funding from the North Dakota Department of Commerce to form a center of excellence to provide an entrepreneurial opportunity to push farmers to adapt new technology as the possibilities of UAS grow.

Last year, that center transitioned into a full-scale program at the college.

“The mission of a two-year institution is about the industry and supporting those cutting-edge industries that are coming out and making sure our community and our state is getting those skills to meet that industry need,” Ruch said.

The college began by conducting research for both livestock and grain on “answer farms,” which are privately owned operations.

“The big question for most of the producers on the high plains has been, ‘Will this work for me, can I cash flow it, will it drop anything to the bottom line and if so, how much?’” Gunderson said. “So, that’s what we did.”

Gunderson said the school found the average North Dakota farmer spends about $1.3 million annually getting crops in the ground and harvesting them.

Fertilizer makes up about a quarter of that cost. Through the use of UAS and high tech satellite mapping, an operation can reduce its costs in that area by anywhere between 6 and 16 percent.

Along with helping producers in the state cut costs, students in the field can expect to make a median annual salary of $43,120, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

Future of farming
Students at LRSC enrolled in the two-year program learn how to gather and interpret the complicated data unmanned aircraft collect with a strong base in agronomy and skills they can apply in the field.

Some mapping is done using the light that reflects back to satellites and each crop reflects a different color that Gunderson said has to be “teased out.”

Students learn how to break down the massive amount of imagery an unmanned aircraft can collect and code it for color and overlapping map angles, among other things.

Besides determining where to add more or less fertilizer, the imagery also can help farmers locate pests on crops by analyzing the light the leaves reflect.

Flying the aircraft also is part of the curriculum. Gunderson said flying an aircraft over 160 acres usually generates more gigabytes of data than one computer can hold.

“We don’t do flippity flips and we don’t do other stupid stuff with this technology even though it’s quite capable of doing it,” he said. “This is a tool, not a hobby.”

Once students earn their degrees, they can either return to their own family operations, go on to do private contracting work or even sell equipment out of dealerships.

Gunderson said he’s optimistic about the program’s success but federal laws regarding airspace usage are going to change the scene drastically in the future.

As of now, many low-flying UAS don’t have to be equipped with the same sort of detection sensors other aircraft are required to have and can be considered safety hazards.

LRSC President Doug Darling also said Federal Aviation Administration regulations are going to change the way the industry operates.

“The technology is outpacing the bureaucracy and the free market,” he said. “That’s the best way I can put it. Policy hasn’t caught up with practice.”