Clark State Community College has received permission to fly a drone over parts of Springfield to collect photos and other data as part of the college’s new precision agriculture program.
The college announced Tuesday that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued it a Certificate of Authorization to operate a drone over designated farm fields owned by the city and leased by local farmers. The drone will be based at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and must remain at or below 400 feet above ground level, according to the terms of its certificate.
The authorization allows Clark State’s program to move forward, President Jo Alice Blondin said. The program is the first of its kind in Ohio, she said. Test flights could begin as early as this spring.
“This is significant for our students because they can get real-world experience … collecting real-time data and analyzing it,” Blondin said. “It’s a game-changer for us.”
The FAA is developing rules that would allow drones to be integrated into national airspace. But 2015 could be an important year for the industry, said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial, a Springfield company that specializes in unmanned aerial systems.
“I do think this is another major advancement for the region,” Beafore said.
Students won’t fly the drone, but Clark State’s program allows them to analyze data the drones collect.
So far 10 students are enrolled in the program. Students don’t learn to fly unmanned aircraft, but instead learn to analyze a wide range of data from the amount of moisture in the soil to pests that might be damaging crops.
Precision agriculture isn’t new, but it can often take days or even weeks to acquire data from current technologies like satellite imagery or manned flights, said Aimee Belanger-Haas, assistant dean of Business and Applied Technologies at Clark State.
“The drone will add the speed that we need to address the situation immediately,” Belanger-Haas said. “That’s the piece we’ve been missing.”
School officials applied for the authorization last July, and received assistance from the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center, based in Springfield. That agency is tasked with promoting and attracting research across the state, and helped Clark State navigate the approval process with the FAA, said David Gallagher, a spokesman for the test center.
The agency is working on similar projects statewide, including assisting Cleveland Metroparks to acquire an authorization that will allow park officials to use a drone to collect data on plant species and improve management of the park’s resources, Gallagher said.
Clark State will likely seek authorization for a second drone later this year. Students could begin reviewing data collected by the drones in classes this fall, said Larry Everett, professor of agribusiness at the community college.
Tuesday’s announcement is good news both for Clark State and SelectTech, a local company that provides Clark State with unmanned aircraft, said Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and director of economic development for Springfield. The city provided information on which fields it owns that might make sense for the project.
“It really won’t take that large of an area initially as they’re trying to build their program,” Franzen said.