When heavy snows fall or cows are about to give birth, some farmers are unable to visit their herd. That’s where technology comes in.
Students majoring in agriculture at Hutchinson Community College are learning to fly drones, obtain a license and shoot video from above. Several students want to go back to their family farms and use these skills on their cattle and crops.
Emilee Diekmann, 19, said what she is learning in her unmanned class will be extremely useful for her on her family’s farm in Woodbine in Dickinson County.
"I will be able to fly over my cattle herd and crops for my family and friends," Diekmann said. "I’d like to be able to take pictures."
In HCC’s unmanned aerial systems class, students learn how to fly small and large drones, obtain extensive knowledge for gaining their commercial drone pilot license and discover how to put together a drone video.
"The test is relatively stringent," said Kent McKinnis, professor of crops and agronomy at HCC. "It’s not easy."
Each student is given a small drone to fly in this hands-on class. They are responsible for the vehicle’s care and handling. A few times during the semester students get to fly the big $2,000 drones.
"These (small drones) are really tricky to fly," McKinnis said. "If you can fly one of these (the small ones), the bigger ones are a piece of cake."
When they are in class, the students learn about aerospace, charts, gravity, safety and weather. And because they live and fly in Kansas, they must always be aware of wind. The pilot must always have the drone in view and keep it under 400 feet above the ground.
William "Bill" Stark uses drones in his biology program at Fort Hays State University, where they have a drone laboratory.
"It (unmanned aircrafts) gives you a lot of perspective," Stark said. "Sometimes you can’t wait for the next satellite or plane."
In addition to checking on animals, the drones can detect diseases or pests in crops. The technology is also used for real estate or examining structures, but in order to use an unmanned aircraft vehicle commercially, the pilot must possess a license.
Along with HCC, Butler, Cloud and Northwest Technical community colleges have variations on an unmanned program. As does Kansas State Polytechnic in Salina, Fort Hays and other four-year colleges. Each school has a specific area of focus in the unmanned arena, with Hutch focusing on agriculture.
Along with the many agricultural applications, students can work in pipeline inspection, wildlife management and wind turbine inspections in this up-and-coming career. Applications for drones in agriculture are vast.
Logan North, 19, plans to go back to his family’s farm in McCracken in Rush County and use a drone to look after the family’s cows while they’re calving. Fellow student, Laura Doll, 19, plans to attend Kansas State University after graduation from Hutch and major in agronomy.
"I took this class because I want to be a crop adviser," said Doll, who grew up on a farm in Andale. "I want to be able to scope the fields."
Another student, Maguire Rohr, 18, plans to go back home to Colorado and one day use drones for spraying wheat.
"I want to use it wherever it fits in," said Paul Cook, 18, of Andover, who wants to get a job on a farm after graduation. "It’ll make me more marketable."
McKinnis is impressed with his students’ ability to listen, absorb and fly the drones. Because of COVID-19, the class was split in two. This makes for more teaching but also more individualized instruction. McKinnis will offer this course again next semester, and in the next three years, he hopes to offer a certificate in unmanned.
"Drones are excellent for evaluating crop health," Stark said. "They are sensitive to conditions that effect their (farmers’) bottom line."