Drone tech will demand more workers

This post originally appeared on http://www.illinoisfarmertoday.com/news/regional/drone-tech-will-demand-more-workers/article_bd43da7c-5f2e-11e6-a4aa-9b99aa0e17d5.html.

[Editor’s Note: Dennis Watson, a Southern Illinois University professor who works in agricultural systems, noted that farmers want to be able to fly over their fields, collect data and receive a crop health report.]

BELLEVILLE — College hopefuls might want to put down the Pokémon Go and reach for a drone.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are the wave of the future for ag school graduates. Chris Clemons, an ag education professor at Auburn University, says studies show that over the next decade, 25 percent of all new jobs in the ag sector will be UAV-centered.

“That means pilots, maintainers, data analysts, software programmers, designers, engineers, whatever,” Clemons said. “One-quarter of new graduates will be involved in UAV tech.”

Colleges will be hard-pressed to supply those grads. Clemons said at a field day here there are only about 150,000 ag school graduates to fill 400,000 jobs open this year, and most of those don’t involve drones.

“This is one more layer that we’re already going to start pulling from a limited pool,” he said.

Dennis Watson, a Southern Illinois University professor who works in agricultural systems, agrees drone technology is facing supply-and-demand issues. The 25 percent figure is understandable.

“I’ve not seen that data, but it’s not surprising,” he said. “If you’re a farmer, you want to fly over your fields and collect some infrared imagery and get a crops health report.

“Seed sales people, for instance, want to fly over those test plots to look at them. Third-party services may be working with the data recommending fertilizer application and precision ag.”

He said that’s on the production side. Drones could also keep tabs on farm structures, making it easier to get a good look at the top of a grain bin, rather than have someone climb it.

Watson said the majority of UAV research today is being done in vineyards in the West, especially in California. That is changing as quickly as the technology.

“We’re seeing that technology move to the East,” he said. “We’re starting to see a number of applications for UAVs. They’re essentially taking the role of crop scouting. We can identify disease and not just weed pressure in general, but down to the individual classification of the kinds of weeds.”

Non-ag uses also abound. Utility company engineers often must hire helicopter pilots to fly over power lines to monitor problems. That can cost thousands and require advance scheduling.

“If they had a UAV, the engineer could launch it and see what’s going on,” Watson said.

The increasing use of unmanned vehicles brings with it a number of challenges. They include not only technical aspects and application, but regulation. As with any fledgling industry, regulators are struggling to adapt.

The Federal Aviation Administration originally sought to have operators obtain pilot’s licenses. The agency then decided to require an abbreviated version. University researchers have met other roadblocks, such as dealing with restrictions on use near airports.

Operators may not run UAVs within five miles of an airport unless they obtain exemptions.

“This is a slow process,” Clemons said.

College administrators are scrambling to prepare students for the burgeoning UAV field. SIU has a precision ag course that incorporates some education on drones and offers students some experience. The university’s aviation flight program provides a step up. The ag college may also focus more on the technology.

“What I think we’ll end up doing is offering a course if aviation flight doesn’t, to train the students and give them some instruction so they can take that aeronautical knowledge test they’re going to need and pass it,” Watson said. “If I were a student graduating and I could get my UAV certification, I would think that would be a plus for me applying for jobs.”

Fortunately, interest in the field appears to match the demand. Watson took an informal poll of a class of 25 students, and all indicated they would be interested in UAV technology.

“It’s cool and it’s technology,” he said.


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