MITCHELL — For generations, the only way for farmers to check the condition and progress of their crops was on the ground. Now, with the modern technology available in 2022, they have another option.
They can take to the skies.
That’s what students at Mitchell Technical College are studying as part of the school’s geospatial technologies and precision ag programs, where they are learning the ins and outs of drone flight and operation as part of their curriculum.
“It’s a cool technology that increases your efficiency. It’s the future, and we wanted to be ahead of the curve or on it,” said Devon Russell, the program manager and instructor in the Mitchell Technical College precision ag program who spearheaded the creation of one of the state’s first drone programs.
Over the years, drones evolved from a technological curiosity to a toy of hobbyists. Today, they have become a crucial part of industrial infrastructure, helping farmers survey their operations and crops with high-resolution imagery detailed enough to distinguish between particular types of insect damage from high above. Or in the mining industry, where they can efficiently evaluate environmental impact on the landscape while peering down from the sky.
Drones are helping improve operations in many industries. Russell, a Pierre native who has been with Mitchell Tech since 2013, said Mitchell Tech wanted to be at the forefront of the technology that makes those drones tick. Under Russell’s leadership, the school launched the geospatial technologies program in 2015, and drones have become a big part of that and the ag program in the subsequent years.
To use drones, you need pilots.
“We saw drones are the up-and-coming thing, and growers were getting them but not knowing what to do with them, and they ended up on a shelf. What’s the return on investment? How can they help the ag industry?” said Russell.
They can help with scouting crop yield, agronomy and imagery. An experienced drone operator can guide a drone to determine the health of a plant and differentiate between weed and insect damage. Drones can provide a wealth of data to a producer, and data is power in the increasingly high-tech world of agriculture, Russell said.
Outside the agriculture industry, which is the realm of the geospatial program, drones can be used for powerline inspection and in mining operations, which uses drones for surveying and dust control.
“The drone has really increased efficiency,” Russell said.
Establishing a drone presence at Mitchell Tech became easier in 2016, when the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed rules that opened the door wider for potential commercial drone use. Now with easier access to licenses, students had better opportunities to get on board and get started with the equipment.
The programs are not exclusively centered around drone flight, but drones are an important part. Instruction focuses on operation and safety, as well as an understanding of the data being collected and the best way to operate the drone to gather it.
“We want them to provide those deliverable products. And when they know that side, the back half of the workflow, it makes them focus on how they fly the mission. It makes them a lot more efficient, especially when you cover the picture and videography side. They know they just can’t fly around and have the camera jerking everywhere. They have to really smooth it out,” Russell said.
Now several years in, the programs have an enrollment of about 36 students between the two and are enjoying a 100% placement rate for jobs. Russell said that Taranis, a drone company with a presence in Sioux Falls, is looking for 256 pilots this summer.
The FFA also released a report indicating that, over the next five years, officials expect a drone operator shortage numbering 350,000.
“We have a lot more jobs than graduates. It’s not just one company looking for pilots,” Russell said. “And that’s with an average median salary of $80,000. So it’s definitely a good field to go into.”
Drew Robinson is one Mitchell Tech graduate who has entered the drone pilot field after graduation. A Mitchell native, he is working for Taranis, and has been flying drones over fields throughout southeastern and northern South Dakota over the summer.
He originally attended Mitchell Tech for the powerline program, but eventually found his way to the geospatial program and embraced it.
“Originally when I applied to Mitchell Tech I started with the powerline program, but it wasn’t really for me. I have a buddy who went for geospatial tech, too, and he talked to me about it, and that piqued my interest,” Robinson said. “I thought it would be something cool to get into, and it’s up and coming and a lot of different jobs are coming up for it. I figured I’d get my foot in the door.”
He estimates he has overflown more than 71,000 acres during his summer with Taranis. As a drone operator for the company, his daily duties include flying over fields during a specific date range, performing stand counts and looking for crop diseases, growth difficulties and insect damage. A field will typically require about five flights to gather the needed data.
He was busy, to be sure, but he enjoyed it and the work took him as far south as Yankton and north to Jamestown, N.D. There are job opportunities all over the country, but for now he’s happy to be sticking with Taranis and is even keeping his eye out for potential advancement.
He credits those opportunities to Mitchell Tech and the guidance it gave him in entering the field, especially the hands-on flying experience.
“The number one thing I benefited from is getting all the flight experience I had beforehand. When we had orientation, a lot of people were pretty timid when it came to flying the drones. It’s a big, expensive piece of machinery, and they were worried about crashing,” Robinson said. “I had that experience. I knew how to safely operate it.”
Of course, accidents will happen, and occasionally a drone will end up unexpectedly on the ground. Robinson said he was proud to report he was the only one of his crew who did not crash a drone this year. Russell said that’s the kind of performance record the Mitchell Tech programs hope to cultivate in all its graduates.
As the program grows, it is looking to promote what the courses entail, noting that many potential students are unfamiliar with terms like geospatial technologies. Then there is the ever-evolving technology, which is expensive to keep up with but crucial to keeping students on the cutting edge. In that vein, the school is looking to acquire a new spraying drone in the future.
The programs have also made inroads with area schools, offering a drone check-out program to introduce new flyers to the technology and hopefully increase interest in the career path.
Russell said that the demand for operators is there, and potential students should consider the program, even if it was something that was not necessarily on their radar prior to enrolling. Important characteristics for a good pilot include a willingness to learn and someone who likes the outdoors. There are even aspects of drone operation and flight that may appeal to fans of video games.
“Anyone can get into it. You’re not limited,” Russell said.
Robinson agreed. He wasn’t completely sure the program was for him, but it turned out to be just the thing.
“I’d say, for the most part, I was one of those people. I thought I needed to go to school to prove something to myself, and I just looked around and it piqued my interest. I did not know what to expect, but I thought it would be cool to have a job where I could fly drones and get information for farmers and coops,” Robinson said. “I found myself in that position. I got the job and love it every day. It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”