Tapping into drone technology

By Jim Paterson

In remote areas of south Florida, experts believe there are 300,000 Burmese pythons, massive invasive visitors that are as long as a small car and have wiped out all but a few of the other animals in the areas they inhabit. They are now beginning to consume alligators.

In rural New Jersey 1,300 miles away, students at Warren County Community College (WCCC) are involved in a research project to help solve the problem from the air.

They are using data from drones as part of a broader, unique collaboration with the world’s largest aviation and aerospace university. And as students learn to analyze the data, the skills they develop perhaps can be applied to spot an elusive bear causing trouble in a residential neighborhood, measure algae bloom effects, improve agricultural production or even help first responders save lives in fires or active shooter scenarios by spotting a gun in a crowd.

“The python-hunting drone and camera we are helping to develop could be put to use in a number of other valuable ways,” says WCCC President Will Austin. “Just as importantly, however, to be involved in a project like this is so good for our students, and it wouldn’t have happened without this collaboration.”

Students and faculty from both institutions are analyzing data to determine the effectiveness of using drones and near-infrared cameras to detect the snakes – research that thus far has positive results. Near-infrared light reflects off foliage and other objects, but not as significantly from the snakes. They’ll be studying the potential for using that equipment in a variety of other ways and formally presenting evidence of its effectiveness.

Leveraging resources

Unique in itself, the project is part of a broader, formal collaboration between WCCC and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), based in Daytona Beach, one of the nation’s top schools for aviation.

The agreement will not only let students from WCCC’s nationally known drone program seamlessly enroll at ERAU to complete their bachelor’s degree, it allows the schools to collaborate on research and grants, share technology and faculty, and work together on projects like this one.

“We have a lot of cooperative arrangements with four-year colleges, but this is different,” Austin says. “Embry-Riddle is an elite university in the field of aviation and aerospace, and for us to partner with their program is absolutely an honor. Based on our history together already, this was a natural step forward for both schools.”

Austin says he believes that, beyond developing a pathway for students, the collaboration came about because both institutions were interested in “expanding knowledge and capacity.”

WCCC’s drone program has grown from three students at its inception five years ago, to currently 40. And it is projected to enroll as many as 200 once the new, roughly 4000-square-foot center for aeronautics and robotics and 1000-square-foot advanced manufacturing maker labs are completed, projected for fall 2022.

The facilities will train students in the design, assembly and operation of drones costing from $100 to $100,000. They also will increasingly offer instruction about the development of related robots and other types of remotely controlled robotic vehicles and the “business of automated mobility,” which includes the evolution of drones as human and cargo transportation vehicles, which are used around the world and awaiting approval for use in the U.S.

Warren’s program also specializes in precision agriculture, an emerging field that uses data collected by drones to improve production, a logical field of study for the college given its location in the midst of farmland.

There’s more to the story. Read the full article in CC Daily.

Jim Paterson

writes about education and energy. He lives in Lewes, Delaware.