When Clark State Community College President Jo Alice Blondin first came to Ohio nearly two years ago, she knew using drones with its agriculture program “was a real opportunity.”

Clark State isn’t the first community college to venture into using unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as unmanned aerial systems and commonly referenced as drones. Sinclair Community College in Dayton first looked into using drones during a 2008 trade mission trip to Israel, and a handful of other U.S. community colleges have developed some type of drone program.

But earlier this month Clark State became the latest institution of higher education to receive a certificate of authorization to fly drones over fields near the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. These drones will collect data for students in the school’s two-year precision ag program, which began this past August.

“It gives our students real-time data that they can analyze and they can help real farmers with,” said Blondin, who spoke with this newspaper in Washington, D.C., as a guest of Speaker of the House John Boehner for this past Tuesday’s State of the Union address. ”And with one in seven jobs in Ohio being related to agriculture, and within our region there are nearly 1,200 farms, this is just a great opportunity to test their skills.”

The hope is to acquire additional certificates to fly over more local farms and collect more data for the farming industry.

“Industry will develop around how the farmer uses (the data),” Blondin said. “For example, he sees if there are low levels, or various levels of chemicals, and he needs to provide chemicals in this field — and I’m talking down to the millimeter now, so you’re not wasting.

“You’re actually saving quite a bit of money and time by using the data by targeting the real problems that are in your field.”

The earliest drone data will be used in classes would be this May or next January, said Blondin, whose program is receiving support from Springfield-based SelectTech GeoSpatial. But those who entered the associate’s degree program this past August will be able to graduate at the earliest in May 2016.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he has “worked extensively” to strengthen unique drone ag capabilities and increase Ohio’s leadership in defense and aerospace.

“I am committed to advancing our state’s leadership role in unmanned systems,” said Portman. “Ohioans have a unique ability to develop and build cutting-edge technologies and aerospace equipment with work done at our academic institutions like Clark State, the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson, NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and industry partners.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the Miami Valley is a hub for drone research, training and development and “Clark State is building on that momentum by training students for the jobs of tomorrow.

“By applying UAS technologies to the agriculture industry, we help bolster Ohio’s leading industry by ensuring producers have the resources necessary to compete,” Brown said. “With UAS development still in its nascent stages, it’s important that officials work closely with the FAA to monitor safety and privacy concerns along the way.”

Why Do This?

So why did Clark State invest $100,000 in the program, which also received $500,000 from the state to build UAV hangers at Springfield’s airport?

“We knew we had a great agriculture program … and we just knew that this was a great way to leverage the emerging industry, but also to really focus on the data analytics piece as well as the agriculture piece,” Blondin said. Clark State’s ag program was one of the first to be established when it became a technical college.

An additional $100,000 will be invested in the program as the educational tools are needed, said Amit Singh, Clark State’s vice president of academic affairs. That includes lab and technical equipment. That money will be spent by this fall semester, he added.

There will be other costs, such as upgrades and updates for equipment and software, but those will be nominal, Singh said.

He added that one goal of the program is to train students for basic drone-flying lessons.

“They need to know the whole business,” he said. “Analyzing is the most important piece … but we’re training them to be fully skilled to do the job.”

Jeff Robinson, communications director for the Ohio Board of Regents, said precision ag is an emerging field “that provides a variety of employment opportunities” which will assure “that they will be ready for these jobs that call for skilled workers.”

Blondin said Clark State’s program will be monitored by other Ohio schools, and most likely schools across country.

“The view from the curriculum perspective and from the emerging fields perspective is that this industry is going to grow, and we’re betting on it. Clark State is betting on it; I think the state of Ohio is,” Blondin said. “The truth is we’re going to be seeing more application of unmanned area vehicles and this is just one of the most obvious for Ohio because of its focus on agriculture and the importance of that industry.”

UAV Impact

The Ohio State University in Columbus and Sinclair Community College, which has a branch campuses in Warren and Preble counties, have a partnership to allow students to seek a four-year degree in precision ag fields.

The school — which has leveraged $10 million into exploring this industry — currently has an associate’s of technical studies for the field. Sinclair will submit plans to the Board of Regents to convert the program into an associate’s of applied sciences degree.

The school secured approval in 2013 to fly unmanned aircraft at Wilmington Air Park and was the first in the state to receive such approvals.

So getting into this growing industry “made a lot of sense” and “seems like a natural fit for this region” known for aerospace, manufacturing and agriculture, said Deb Norris, Sinclair’s vice president of workforce development.

She said Sinclair leaders decided very early on to make their program a national center.

“It’s like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ So we began investing starting in 2008,” Norris said.

Institutions of higher education are not the only ones watching Clark State and Sinclair. Blondin said the industry is very interested in finding out in what the curriculum leads to.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a new program, but we had all the pieces in place,” Blondin said. “A lot of community colleges don’t have a GIS program, a world-class agriculture program and the focus on unmanned aerial systems that’s here in the region. So I think when all those things come together, precision agriculture just makes sense.”

Blondin said this program could lead Clark State to developing other suites of curriculum around precision ag with Central State University in Wilberforce — most notably aquaculture.

“That program could be a two-year pathway to the water resources management Central State is known for,” she said.