Alfred University program uses drones to study, analyze area farmland
A new program offered at Alfred University has led to a group of farmers in Allegany County gaining valuable knowledge that could help them maximize the use of their fields and pastures.
ALFRED, NY – A new program offered at Alfred University has led to a group of farmers in Allegany County gaining valuable knowledge that could help them maximize the use of their fields and pastures.
The University, using a $150,000 federal grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), offered instruction on the repair, maintenance, and operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, while also teaching students about business and job opportunities in the drone field.
The three-credit course, UAV Engineering and Entrepreneurship, was offered jointly by the Inamori School of Engineering and the College of Business. Offered during the spring 2019 semester, the course consisted of a two-credit hour class on entrepreneurship and a one-credit hour lab which led to an opportunity to be licensed as a drone pilot.
Twenty-six Alfred students (23 engineering, three business) who took the entrepreneurship class participated in the lab, taught by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Seong-Jin Lee. Nick Davis, a licensed drone pilot and founder and owner of Genesee Valley Media, a full service video production company in Andover, NY, specializing in commercial, event and industrial videos, instructed students on how to fly unmanned aerial vehicles. Davis used flight simulation software to teach students proper use of control systems and then instructed them in live flying of UAVs.
In mid-June, Davis led a team that included two mechanical engineering students – Tim Mahany, a senior from Orchard Park, NY, and Justin Smith, a senior from Woodstock, CT – in using drones to provide aerial photography of five farms in Allegany County. Four were produce farms (two in the town of Andover; one in Angelica; one in Alfred Station) and the fifth was a livestock operation in the town of Alfred.
The fields on the produce farms were photographed shortly after crops had been planted. Davis explained that the drone, equipped with a high-resolution digital camera, was flown across each field on a pre-programmed path, taking thousands of images, “one for every second of the flight,” over the course of the three- to five-hour flight. Using special computer software, Mahany and Smith “stitched together” the photos to create a single image of the fields, which when given to the farmers, allowed them to get a unique view of the entire layout of their land.
Another flight, using a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera, provided specialized data that can determine heat index, mineral content, the presence of water and moisture, and other factors that impact the effective use of fields.
In July, the team used drones to fly over and photograph a livestock farm in Alfred. Aerial images helped show how grazing had affected the landscape of the fields. At the end of August and first part of September, when crops will begin being harvested, the team will return to photograph the five farms visiting earlier in June.
Data gathered in the fly-overs will be managed and analyzed by students. Their findings are being shared with farmers, who will use it to enhance their operations. During the fall 2019 semester, an assessment of the project will be conducted, with faculty and students putting together a final report to be submitted to the state and federal government.
The ARC grant, which was matched by in-kind services provided by the University, provided funding for drone flight simulation software, as well as drones used by students during training. Students were also instructed on rules and laws regulating drone operation. Davis instructed the students on the simulation software in the engineering computer lab and also provided flight training on the athletic field at Yunevich Stadium.
“We had two main goals in the (lab) class: the first was to deliver aerodynamic principles and to prepare them to take the drone pilot’s license test; the second goal was to give them a chance to learn and exhibit drone flight skills,” Seong-Jin Lee said. He said at the end of the spring semester, eight students had taken and passed their test to become licenses pilots, their $150 fees paid for with grant monies.
The ARC-funded project at Alfred University sought to show how the emerging field of drone technology could be used to spur economic development in the region – by providing the local workforce with new marketable skills, and through the potential creation of new businesses that utilize the technology.
Davis has been operating drones for business for three years, serving, among others, the marketing, real estate and tourism industries. He pointed to other industries – land surveying, inspection of buildings, roads and bridges, cinematography – that make use of drones.
Sangjoon Lee, professor of economics in Alfred University’s College of Business, taught the two-hour class on UAV entrepreneurship. Students learned about businesses that utilize drone technology and how being licensed to operate drones can be a skill attractive to employers.
Seong-Jin Lee said the program has been beneficial not only to the farmers who hope to improve their agricultural operations, but also to students, who will gain new and unique perspectives on an emerging technology. The students who participated in the data collection at farms, Smith and Mahany, agreed.
“The class allowed me to explore the vital relationship between engineering and business in addition to teaching important safety practices and effective tactics for drone use in a commercial setting,” Smith said. “As an engineer, you are taught the application of theory necessary for solving complex problems but you are not really taught how to create a demand for this service. This class has taught me that the services brought about by engineering logic are useless without effective business practices. Furthermore, this class has helped me develop a degree of professionalism that has improved my ability to communicate with people of different fields of study.
Mahany said he gained a better understanding of the business side of drone technology, pointing a business simulation offered in the entrepreneurship class.
“It gave me some insight into how the business side works. It helped me to understand that money plays an important role in everything today. You need to look at the long term and predict what the outcome will be from spending money on it. You have to try to predict the future and see if you can recoup your money and also make money from the project,” Mahany said. “We learned this first hand through a (business) simulation in the class. In the simulation there were different areas to spend money and if you ended up spending your whole budget you would be successful for a year but then it would fade out. We realized you need to spread out your money into different areas and not funnel them into one project.”