Some Portage students were involved with the use of drone technology and agronomy. The Science Experiential Aerial Research program, or SEAR program, took place at a field in Portage's east end.

Volatus Aerospace vice president in charge of education programming and agriculture programs Matthew Johnson says our school division was part of five who gathered.

"We have Mountain View, Prairie Rose, Prairie Spirit, Portage la Prairie, and Sunrise School Division taking part in the Crop Disease Project of the Year program," says Johnson. "They're learning, first of all, how to pilot drones, and then use the drones to collect aerial data that we're using for academic research purposes, looking for crop diseases, and growth stage development assessment."

He notes the purpose in exposing students to the research includes their engagement at a young age.

"They're learning about the cool science aspect of agronomy," says Johnson. "I think a lot of people may have a mixed idea of what agriculture is really all about, not realizing that there's some really cool technology that goes into what farmers and agronomists are doing every day. We're using drones, but we're also using ground assessment tools such as soil analysis, leaf chlorophyll analysis, and root analysis."

He says this helps students learn agronomic skills in addition to drone piloting, giving them a way to ground truth all of the data they're collecting. 

"Some of them have already gone ahead to get their drone pilots certificate, or their RPAS Pilot certificate, from Transport Canada," adds Johnson. "A lot of them are still working on that. Volatus runs training programming for the basic and advanced drone pilot certificate. We provide that as part of the program to all of the students that take part. We have funding from Research Manitoba that covers the majority of the cost for school divisions to take part in the program. We have funding for up to 13 school divisions from across Manitoba. This is just year one of the three-year funding cycle that we have."

Johnson adds there are two other projects also taking place that are part of the same program. 

"One is called the Crop Disease Project that's running in Winnipeg," says Johnson. "We're working to develop a machine-learning algorithm that's able to detect the presence of Dutch Elm disease in the Elm tree canopies, which is very important to a lot of communities in Manitoba, especially. We have a huge percentage of our shade trees. A lot of these communities have Elm trees, and Dutch Elm disease is very prevalent in those communities. So, being able to solve real-world problems is a huge aspect, but also just to engage these students and getting them pumped about agriculture, precision agriculture, learning how to use these tools, and inspiring them toward careers in ag is a big goal of the program." 

He says they currently have 50 to 55 students from across the province who gathered. Johnson notes it's the first year and first rendition of the crop disease project.

"It is running also in Alberta and we have this year's program running all across the prairies, British Columbia, and Ontario, as well. So it's not just a Manitoba thing."


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