Thursday, July 10, 2014

School starts program to train crop dusters

With the average age of crop dusters at about 60 – which is even higher than that of farmers – and the number of those pilots dwindling, two instructors at Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in Watertown, S.D., figured they might be able to improve the situation.

Thus, a program called the ag aviation option has been added to the institute’s agriculture and aviation departments.

Aviation department supervisor Greg Klein, whose program is found at the Watertown Regional Airport, and ag department instructor and farm manager Brian Olson came up with the idea, and it was approved this past winter by the state Board of Education.

So far, there’s only one student in the program, but the school is hoping to add more.

The option is fairly simple as a student in either department can take two semesters of agronomy classes in the ag department on the main campus and then also complete the flight courses at the airport classroom to obtain a private pilot’s license.

Graduates will be trained as aerial application pilots, aerial application technicians or aerial application owners or operators.

It’s one of a very few educational programs in the nation where the two departments are melded to offer a crop dusting option, Klein and Olson said. There is one program fairly close at the University of Minnesota at Crookston. Another – perhaps the only other one – is in Florida.

“There is a need,” said longtime ag department supervisor Jim Clendenin. “We have to have a career at the end of the day for these kids. With the demand out there, we have a career if they are successful in completeing the program.”

The demand for crop aviation is definitely on the rise. For example, with wet fields in many areas this year, aerial application was in some cases the only option for spraying weeds.

A former LATI student recently has been hired to apply fertilizer by plane, Klein said.

Seeding also can be done by plane, with alfalfa or cover crops as prime examples.

One of the shortfalls in the pipeline for crop dusters, however, is that some who might be interested don’t have an agriculture background. Through this new option, they can learn the agronomic issues through the ag department.

Klein said that from the aviation standpoint, besides the flight instruction, they want to teach the students about the GPS guidance system used in crop dusting that tells pilots whether they have gaps or overlaps of spraying. They also can learn about proper entry, exits and turns when spraying fields.

“Otherwise, it involves pushing the button and applying the spray,” Klein said.

A two-seat Citabria Aurora plane made by American Champion Aircraft Corp. of Rochester, Wis., with a SatLoc GPS system will be used in the training. It’s one of five planes to which the program has access at its airport and hangar site.

In the coming few years, the ag option course might have some company as drone technology could be incorporated into the effort.

“Drones will be part of the ag program in some way, form or shape not too far down the road,” Clendenin said. He said drones also could fit into the institute’s precision agriculture option, another continually developing program at the school.

Klein and Olson already have begun studying ag drone technology and took a look at one company’s product during a recent Aberdeen field day. They said they were pretty impressed that, by using a laptop and an small unmanned aircraft, the company made a count of every plant in a field.

Currently, aviation rules call for drones to be within sight and not more than 400 feet in the air, Klein said. Clendenin said his understanding is that drones aren’t approved yet for full-blown agricultural use.

However, it’s a gray area as far as rules, with the Federal Aviation Adminstration planning to release regulations next year.

The aviation program at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks is one of the centers in the U.S. currently studying drone technology. In a recent survey of 650 participants in northeastern North Dakota conducted by UND researchers, strong support was found for use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture, search and rescue missions, border patrolling, military uses and climate monitoring.

Commercial deliveries, such as those proposed by Amazon to deliver packages, was seen much less favorably.

Study research team member Juntunen Heitkamp said people had the most concern about observations of daily life with the drones and some uses by law enforcement. It was the first comprehensive survey of its kind in the U.S., he said.

Olson said they certainly need to consider drones because the technology can gather amazing amounts of data, but the concern currently is being able to interpret what’s gathered and put it to good agronomic use.

For now, however, the focus is on crop dusting in the new program.

Though that effort is in its infancy and Clendenin said “we have a lot to learn,” the aviation and ag programs have a long history at the school.

The ag program, with its many options for specializing in various fields, last year moved into a new addition.

The aviation mechanics program, which Klein admits isn’t well known around the state, is the only one in the three-state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Started in 1965, its main mission over the years has been to train aircraft maintenance technicians. Flight instruction, offered by chief instructor Jim Behnken, started about two years ago. The program averages about 25 students a year, mostly from a 200-mile radius, although there always are a few from distant states.

Students have found jobs around the world, including working for private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One recent graduate is working as a technician for Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company in California that is building spaceships and waiting for certification to take people into space.

Meanwhile, back in the rural area of South Dakota, officials hope gradates will boost the crop dusting field.

Clendenin said he recently met one pilot who was 83 years old and still spraying crops. The goal is to get more people in their 20s flying above the fields.

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