Indiana agriculture students are getting firsthand experience in using drones, precision agriculture, and big data. With the help of a $454,000 grant from the Office of Gov. Mike Pence and the Newton County Council, South and North Newton high schools have each purchased drones and tractors to train students in precision farming, which uses data to maximize crop yields. “We’re kind of ahead of the game as far as compared to other programs,” said Drake Babcock, who teaches the course. “Eventually, just like many things, it’s going to be something that’s going to trickle down to our secondary level.”
At South Newton, students use two drones. One takes photos and videos of the fields. As one student puts it, it’s the type of drone a real estate agent might use to photograph properties. The second drone is more powerful, with tools specifically designed for agriculture. As it travels over fields, following a programmed GPS itinerary, it collects not only photos but infrared data on the fields.
Students and staff use the data to compile maps showing photosynthesis throughout the field — in other words, where crops are healthy and where they are weak. “As the grower, we can adjust what we need to across the entire field based on that individual plant health,” said Babcock, who began tracking plant health at the school’s test plot this summer. “We learned that we’ve got some huge issues that we need to adjust and fix for next year. “Just driving by and kind of looking at it, we thought that maybe half of our field that we have here was going to be productive and kind of give us a normal yield look. And after flying we found that probably about a third of our field is really gonna give us a normal yield that we’re expecting.”
If the information drones collect is analyzed effectively, farmers can precisely target herbicide and pesticide use, among other benefits, according to Mike Leasure, an aeronautical engineering technology professor at Purdue University. “(That) has a real positive effect on the environment, as well as their bottom line.”
The grant also paid for new tractors equipped with GPS guidance systems that allow them to traverse fields without drivers actively steering. The South Newton students in the course are spending the semester operating the tractor in rotating pairs, teaching each other how to drive.