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PA Rural Robotics Initiative Working to Get Agricultural & Workforce Education Drone Project in the Air

Saturday, February 8, 2020 @ 12:02 AM

Posted by Aly Delp

FB_IMG_1581213319495 (1)CLARION CO., Pa. (EYT) – The Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative’s new agricultural drone project is getting ready for takeoff.

(Photos courtesy Jill Boyles, Redbank Valley School District.)

The initiative, which now includes school districts from Clarion, Forest, Venango, Jefferson, Clearfield, and Crawford Counties, has been working with a company out of California called For The Win (FTW) Robotics to create an Agriculture & Workforce Education Project that not only promotes STEM through the use of drones in school but could also help farmers in our region and beyond.

The project is a coordinated effort between PA Rural Robotics, For The Win Robotics, AgIntegrated (AGI), and Long Acres Farms in Tionesta.

“This is really turning into something huge,” PA Rural Robotics coordinator Tim Heffernan told exploreClarion.com.

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According to Heffernan, Year One of the project, which is in its initial stages right now, will involve the mapping of a 60-acre food-grade soybean plot and the monitoring for an invasive fungus, white mold, with a Parrot Bluegrass drone.

“Through the mapping, we’ll identify places that could have the white mold; then, the kids will actually have to put on boots and go out and look at those places,” Heffernan said.

The drones utilize a Sequoia sensor to create Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) mapping. NDVI measures the difference between near-infrared (which vegetation strongly reflects) and red light (which vegetation absorbs). Generally, high NDVI values indicate healthier vegetation, so students will be checking areas within a certain range of lower values for white mold.

Heffernan said the information from the drones and the students will then be passed along to AGI to create Smart Technology with a prescription plan to deal with the mold. The students will also be working with AGI, as well as Long Acres Farms, to help develop that prescription plan.

Students in Franklin, where the first stage of the program is being beta tested, are currently researching white mold and its effects on soybeans. They have also been actively working with the drones to get used to the equipment’s capabilities in preparation to begin using them as soon as the weather clears up enough.

Heffernan and some of the students also recently attended the Pennsylvania State Farm Show, along with representatives from AGI, and presented plans for the program there.

“We connected with representatives of the Future Farmers of America in Pennsylvania there, and we’re working on some collaboration for the future,” Heffernan explained.

Heffernan said he has also spoken with staff from the USDA and the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture about possibly getting some advisement on the project from them in the future, as well.

According to Heffernan, the students will be directly involved in the creation of the curriculum as it is developed. Once the initial version of the curriculum is created, North Clarion Area will be the next school where it is tested. After it is rolled out there, and they get the input of the second group of students, the program will be prepared for a wider roll out through the participating PA Rural Robotics member schools.

Heffernan noted that one of the great things about the project is that it creates different learning experiences for different students, depending on their background.

“Kids from a non-agricultural background are getting exposure to agriculture through STEM technology, and learning about career choices they may not have considered, while students with an agricultural background are embracing it because of that background, and getting exposure to new STEM technology.”

While the focus on STEM technology and workforce development are the obvious outcomes of the program, the benefits to agriculture could also be very helpful in our region and beyond.

“Food-grade soybeans are a lucrative crop, so if the process works, it will be great service to farmers growing those soybeans,” Heffernan said.

According to Heffernan, there is still more in the works for the initiative, as well, from more new collaborations they’re currently working on cementing to other projects ahead.

“We are working on some things for the future that could be really big,” he said.


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