Warren Community College Secures Grant for Agriculture Drone Program

The $699,000 federal grant will support a program that can launch students into a career in a field where skilled professionals are desperately needed, with a portion going towards outreach, particularly in the agriculture community By Joe Macey / 16 Apr 2024
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Warren Community College Secures Grant for Agriculture Drone Program
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Warren County Community College’s drone training program has received another $699,000 ‘earmarked’ federal congressional appropriation.

The funding will support its unique new precision agriculture program of study, which is already training pilots and technicians to help farmers cut costs and increase productivity.

“Incredible work is taking place at Warren Community College. I was thrilled to see firsthand the progress students and experts are making to help local farmers save money, boost crop yields, and manage their land more efficiently,” said U.S. Sen Cory Booker (D-NJ) who has been a staunch supporter of the Warren program, visiting the campus and fighting for the funding.

“I was proud to advocate for this program to receive this funding and look forward to continuing to work with Warren Community College leaders to empower students and farmers pursuing precision agriculture.”

The funding was part of a budget deal reached last weekend and signed by President Biden. It builds upon an original 2022 congressional appropriation of $750,000 for the program initiated by former U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski.

“I worked closely with municipal and county leaders across our district to identify projects that will create jobs and improve the lives of our constituents,” Malinowski said.

The new Senate appropriation increases the federal funding for precision agriculture at Warren to well over $1.5 million.

WarrenUAS (Uncrewed Aircraft Systems), the college’s fast-growing drone training program, is one of the leading institutions providing industry credentials in the field. It offers credit and non-credit coursework ranging from the fundamentals of the design, maintenance, and programming of the systems to hands-on flight planning, management and execution in the broad scope of areas where drones are now deployed – fields such as law enforcement, construction, meteorology and environmental studies.

It is now connecting its drone training offerings to two new agriculture programs of study, which will benefit from this new funding. Students will be able to meld the agriculture programs with those offered by WarrenUAS to learn about the use of drones in farming while the students in WarrenUAS can add an understanding of farming needs to their credentials.

As it has expanded and its enrollment and staff have grown, WarrenUAS has added a $500,000 state-of-the-art outdoor flight training center, earned additional competitive grants for multi-million-dollar renovations to other UAS related facilities and acquired over 80 uncrewed systems and one of education’s largest collections of new ground and maritime robotic vehicles for student training.

It has also obtained a variety of rare waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones under certain restricted conditions like beyond their visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flying over populated areas – all so that its students can have the most useful training.

Additionally, Warren can fly crop spraying drones heavier than 55 pounds, and has waivers to fly more than one at a time.

“We designed our program to be a leader in education for the booming uncrewed vehicle industry, developing skilled professionals to meet what we know is going to be a growing demand for drone technicians in just about every sector,” said Will Austin, President of Warren, who has prioritized building the sophisticated program.

“Working with experts and life-long farmers we now also have explored the many ways uncrewed systems can greatly benefit agriculture,” he said. “We know we can serve that sector too with the training needed in uncrewed vehicles, and this congressional appropriation will be a key part of meeting that challenge.”

Austin noted that support for WarrenUAS obtaining the grant came from not only Booker and Malinowski, but several state and local elected officials and representatives from the business community. From State Assembly Minority Leader John Dimaio to State Senator Douglas Steinhardt, statewide leaders have joined Warren County officials Lori Ciesla, James Kern, and Jason Sarnoski to help the college seek out the federal funds to support the local agricultural community. Well known farmers like Rick Gardner, Richard Cotton, and Katie Donaldson have been key agricultural leaders in helping WarrenUAS grow its program.

The comprehensive program in precision agriculture will train students in the use of drones and related technology so they can help farmers more accurately assess and treat crops and soil and then even better manage their land.

“The goal of precision agriculture is to improve farm profitability and sustainability and to lessen land burdens through better fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide management. It can ensure greater protection of the environment while simultaneously increasing crop yields,” Austin said.

“Farmers are the experts, but we believe we can help them be even more successful on farms that are environmentally sound.”

Booker pointed out that the grant will support a program that can both launch students into a rewarding career in a field where skilled professionals are desperately needed while it benefits farmers and the planet by making agriculture more efficient and environmentally sound.

“This is something that I want to fight for,” Booker had said on Warren’s Phillipsburg, NJ, campus in August after learning that drones are becoming valuable to farmers in just the way they have been proven to be critical in law enforcement, search and rescue, transportation and the private sector.

Austin noted that a portion of the new $699,000 grant will go to outreach, particularly in the agriculture community. The program will be part of the college’s full two-year degree in UAS, but also offer non-credit instruction in drone use for agriculture, aimed at those in farming who want to familiarize themselves with drone use on their land at a reasonable expense.

“The funds also will be used for research in this relatively new field and for an accelerator lab we are creating that will boost development of new ideas and technology in precision agriculture and other UAS-related fields,” Austin said.

“We think there is a huge future in precision agriculture, and we are poised to be a leader in its development. But we also believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface and research and new ideas are important.”

The lab is designed to develop students to help startup companies accelerate their product development cycles, assist farmers, and create well-paying manufacturing and research jobs in New Jersey, he noted. Companies who became a part of this accelerator will have access to the college’s existing Advanced Robotics Development Lab (ARDL), Airframe Fabrication Lab (AFL) and the proposed Unmanned Surface Vehicle Lab (USVL) and affordable business office space at the college’s existing Phillipsburg, NJ Small Business Development Center (incubator).

The college, which introduced its unmanned systems program in 2018, has been a pioneer in drone industry education for a growing population of students but also has worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, hosting its ‘Droning On’ regional conference in the spring of 2023, and has collaborated broadly with law enforcement, other public officials and other institutions providing unmanned system training at very reasonable rates.

It’s broad collaboration with the leading aeronautical university in the country, Embry-Riddle has included joint training and research projects, journal articles, matriculation pathways to the four-year program at Embry-Riddle, and a forthcoming textbook authored by faculty from both institutions. Recently the partnership was recognized by the Association for Uncrewed Vehicles International with an excellence award for its success in building the industry.

Additionally, WarrenUAS is actively partnered with Rutgers University and the NJ DEP where research studies on till/no till farms, orchard field production, multispectral analyses, bear studies, deer population studies, and many other agricultural related research projects are just getting underway. This collaboration links the tech experts at WarrenUAS with the agricultural experts of Rutgers University. Another partnership with Delaware Valley University, one of the nation’s leading agricultural programs is currently being planned for a Fall 2024 collaborative effort.

“Our goal is to not be experts in a vacuum. We have been generously provided the equipment, software, and expertise from state and federal grants, it is our duty to advance the knowledge for the industry, and there is no better way to do that then partner with university experts to advance food production for our nation in these times of war and climate uncertainty,” Austin said.

Precision agriculture is a high-tech approach to farm management that uses information technology to ensure that crops and soil receive precise treatment for optimum health and productivity, according to Adam Kyle, who is the new director of the precision agriculture program.

“The goal of precision agriculture is to ensure farm profitability, sustainability and to lessen land burdens through better fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide management to ensure greater protection of the environment while simultaneously increasing crop yields,” he said.

“It relies upon specialized equipment, software and artificial intelligence, and uses real-time data about the conditions of the crops, soil and ambient air, along with other relevant information such as local weather predictions,” Kyle noted.

Predictive analytics software uses the data to provide farmers with guidance about crop rotation, optimal planting times, harvesting times and soil management and sensors in fields measure the moisture content and temperature of the soil and surrounding air.

In addition, satellites and robotic drones provide farmers with real-time images of individual plants which are processed and, “integrated with sensor and other data to yield guidance for immediate and future decisions, such as precisely what fields to water and when or where to plant a particular crop,” Kyle said.

Booker said he realized that by placing the program at one of their community colleges, it affords more access to the community and students at the most reasonable prices for education. It also boosts the agriculture community, improves food production, and advances New Jersey’s uncrewed systems potential.

Posted by Joe Macey Connect & Contact
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