Students in Drone Course Help Area Farm Family | Thomas Nelson Community College

Students in Drone Course Help Area Farm Family

May 2, 2019
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Professor Peter Berquist gave some of his students a firsthand look at the practical use of drones when they visited a Williamsburg farm last week.

Peter Berquist, Geology department head, says “the power of the drone is not the fun of flying it. It’s the imagery you get from it.”

His students might think otherwise, but that hasn’t dampened the assistant professor's enthusiasm in his first semester teaching UMS 111 at the Historic Triangle campus.

“This has been one of the coolest classes for me to teach,” said Berquist, a faculty member since 2007. 

The certificate program consists of four classes -- one to get a drone pilot’s license, one on manual flight, one on autonomous flight, and one on repair and maintenance.

While he enjoys teaching the class and learning more about drones, he realizes it’s more than fun and games.

“The more I’ve worked with them, the more I realize they really aren’t toys,” he said. “And it says that everywhere. ‘This is not a toy.’

“But it’s got a controller (so) it has to be, right?”

To stress that to his students, he wanted to incorporate as much practical flying and practical applications as possible into his lesson plans. He wanted to show them the most common uses for drones – and where they can make a living – is in real estate, land use (construction) and agricultural. Earlier in the semester, the class visited a construction site one day and Kingsmill Resort on another. Last week, he and six students visited Sweethaven Lavender Farm, about seven miles from the Historic Triangle campus.

The Messer family purchased 134 acres on Jolly Pond Road more than a year ago and soon had cleared 79 of those acres. They planted about 20,000 lavender plants, but ran into a problem.

“We happened to plant on the (second) wettest year of Virginia’s history,” Kerry Messer said. “We were losing plants rapidly, by the hundreds.”

She estimated they lost about 5,000 plants.

Enter  Berquist along with William & Mary geology professor Chuck Bailey. They learned last fall that the Messers were interested in using drone technology to survey their plants.

“You can fly these fields and, depending on the kind of camera you have and the way that you process the images afterward, you can see stressed plants vs. healthy plants,” Berquist said.

Berquist's students flew their drones last week all over the farm, capturing hundreds of images in the hopes of locating the distressed plants.

“What that allows you to do is give targeted treatments,” Berquist said. “If all but 10 percent of the plants are doing well, you don’t necessarily need to treat 100 percent of the crop. You can just focus on that 10 percent.”

And that goes back to the power of the drone.

“The really important part is what you do with the data and how you critically analyze and evaluate it,” Berquist said.

Messer also is hoping the images help her family with more than just the plants. The data collected by Berquist’s class will assist the Messers in redrawing the topographical maps of the area, helping them learn about drainage, flooding control and irrigation.

“They’re going to let us know ‘Don’t plant here.’ ‘Do plant there,’” she said.  “They’re going to look at the soil structure. They’re going to look at the big picture.”

Berquist said this is the type of thing that gets him up early in the morning and keeps him up late at night, “but all in good ways.”

“This is a really exciting partnership for me,” he said. “To have a group that is so welcoming … and for us to be able to provide them with information that they can act on.”