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Published March 03, 2014, 09:43 AM

LRSC, UND partner to bring UAS technology to classroom

Experts indicate that unmanned aircraft are the future of agriculture technology. Lake Region State College, in Devil’s Lake, N.D., and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks are embracing that reality by training the next generation of ag professionals to fly them and interpret the data they collect. While the Federal Aviation Administration is still determining the legality of flying drones outside of research fields, the schools are preparing to take off with new programs as soon as restrictions are lifted.

By: Sarah Dykowski, Agweek

Experts indicate that unmanned aircraft are the future of agriculture technology. Lake Region State College, in Devil’s Lake, N.D., and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks are embracing that reality by training the next generation of ag professionals to fly them and interpret the data they collect.

While the Federal Aviation Administration is still determining the legality of flying drones outside of research fields, the schools are preparing to take off with new programs as soon as restrictions are lifted.

LRSC has begun training students to fly drones in simulators, for research and in indoor areas, but is working on acquiring permissions to fly more outdoors in semesters to come.

Students and professors agree the possible application of the technology is limitless, and training students on how to research applications and fly the aircraft will give them an edge in the job market.

“I think that being exposed to UAS will enable me to be ahead of other people in the industry when it comes to field scouting techniques and other uses for UAS in agriculture,” LRCS freshman John Nienhuis says. “Being exposed to UAS now will mean I won’t be unprepared when UAs are used more and more in agriculture, as well as other industries.”

Larson agrees.

“Not a lot of people have experience with all the software…” he says.

LRSC Precision Ag Assistant Director Brad Mathson says his ultimate goal is to train students to get the most out of the technology and be prepared to apply it effectively.

Nienhuis hopes to continue his education after completing the precision ag program at LRSC to get a degree in agriculture aviation. But ultimately he wants to farm and help others farm.

Mathson thinks UAS can change the way farmers operate, saving them time, money and effort.

For example, UAS are able to use infrared imaging to detect disease in plants before they look sick so farmers will be able to combat issues before they spread. Applying the right treatment to the right plants early can save expense and increase profits for farmers, as well as help the environment by allowing for more precise chemical application.

In cases like Nienhuis’, training ag students to use the technology now could mean putting that capability directly in farmers’ hands in the future.

Sophomore Lincoln Larson says that livestock industry can also benefit from UAS technology.

With thermo-imaging the aircraft can locate and look for disease in animals faster and easier than a rancher or veterinarian.

Nienhuis and Larson are helping Mathson complete paperwork for a certificate of authorization that would allow them to test and practice using these applications in producers’ fields.

Beyond the professional and educational advantages, the students say flying the drones is relatively simple and enjoyable.

“They can do flips and stuff like that,” Larson says. “You can have fun with them too.”

He adds that software is being developed that would allow operators to use an iPad to control where UAS go.

The connection that LRSC shares with UND’s unmanned aircraft program helps ensure that the fun aspects of learning to fly the aircraft don’t get out of hand.

UND Program Director Doug Olsen says his program builds off UND’s policies for manned aircraft training, safety first.

“These are not toys. These are not gimmicks,” he says. “These are real aircraft in the national airspace, and they need to be treated as such.”

Right now, UND’s program emphasizes the pilot side of the technology more than the application, but it is looking to expand in that direction.

LRSC’s program is flooded with students and Mathson says many high school students he talks to express interest in the program.

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