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Student finds fit blending technology, agriculture

What a difference six months made. Southwestern Michigan College/Michigan State University fruit and vegetable crop management major Nathan Oman set off for five days at Muskegon Community College in January as part of an unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for agriculture course that included building and maintaining drones. Oman, 26, a 2010 New Buffalo High School graduate and part-time firefighter, was among eight students from MSU Ag Tech partner schools enrolled in the inaugural class.

The second leg of his journey with the innovative, semester-long course involved 12 weeks of online study.

Finally, in May, students converged on Traverse City for two weeks of training at Northwestern Michigan College’s Yuba airfield.

Using four drones, they conducted flights over a range of crops, collected aerial imagery, integrated sensor data, then analyzed it for potential agriculture industry applications.

Students came from farms that raised everything from dairy and beef cattle to row crops such as corn and wheat and specialty crops such as asparagus and Christmas trees.

Oman learned FAA Part 107 rules governing small unmanned aircraft to test for his commercial drone license at Andrews University.

Oman keeps bees, but doesn’t have a farm. A Pokagon Fund scholarship eased financial pressure, so he worked for his father’s Union Pier construction company while deciding what to pursue.

For three years his day job has been at a Three Oaks greenhouse producing hydroponic vegetables.

“I like being outside and have grown gardens since I was a kid,” he said. “I was into computers when I was younger.”

He invested in a $2,500 drone to map grape and hops fields.

Thanks to a connection made during the UAS course he started working for Sky Flight Robotics, a Saginaw company, and will become part owner of a spin-off service venture.

“I hit it off with the Sky Flight guys,” Oman said. “We designed a mount for a multispectral camera on a Phantom 4 Pro” DJI drone. “They know a guy who does 3D printing. I got a CAD file for the computer for the Phantom 4. The 3D print guys took the file, printed the mount, which fit right on my drone, and we flight-tested it.”

Sky Flight “is more a sales-based company,” he said. “They’re a dealer for DJI, the No. 1 drone manufacturer, and red MicaSense multispectral cameras. There aren’t as many businesses doing drone work as you might think. The field’s wide open. A company around here my instructor knew was looking into going to Sri Lanka to spray tea fields.”

“The multispectral has five cameras — red, green, blue, near-infrared and red edge light band,” he said. “It lets us see the band of light a plant reflects or absorbs that we can’t see.”

For a demonstration he slides his finger around his tablet screen, making a grid over the six-acre, four-minute basin adjacent to SMC’s Foster W. Daugherty Building.

“The camera knows where to take photos as the drone flies so they line up,” he said. “They overlap, then computer software stitches them together. There are 10,000 photos of a 100-acre vineyard I’m doing because of five images every time it snaps a picture. It takes the computer 24 hours to sort out” a 40-minute flight.

A second suitcase contains 30-minute rechargeable batteries costing $180 each. He maps 600-by-200-foot fields the long way because turns shorten battery life.

His drone shoots straight up like a model rocket to 262 feet instead of the usual 400 so it stays visible.

Back inside, he calls colorful May 6 grape data to a desktop.

“Green and blue indicate good plant health; yellow not so good; red, dead or missing vines. You can identify problems before they’re visible to the human eye by detecting invisible bands of light. A student in Traverse City last year experimented on a cherry orchard, finding stress weeks before it developed cherry leaf spot (fungal disease).”

“I’ve totally run with it,” he said of his drone immersion.

“Drones have more potential than agriculture,” said Oman, whose 3D models document Lake Michigan beach erosion.

“Nathan wasn’t thinking of anything like this, then his career did a 180,” Stacey Rocklin, MSU’s SMC Ag Tech coordinator, said. ”He didn’t have an interest in drones, per se, but I noticed his interest in technology because he was my (teaching assistant) and offered to write a manual because it came easy to him. That’s why I thought he should try the class. I’m so proud of him.”

“Six months ago when I got home, I couldn’t even fly very well. I did not expect to be able to do all this with drones,” Oman said. “The class opened my mind to so many amazing opportunities, I’d like to make a career of it. I can’t thank her enough.”