The Portage la Prairie School Division and Volatus Aerospace have announced that Portage Collegiate Institute (PCI) will partner on a unique research project using aerial remote detection technologies to observe disease in local test crops.

Volatus and PCI students will use drones equipped with multispectral sensors to gather aerial data at a crop research site near Portage. Through a partnership with the agriculture industry, data will be collected and correlated with ground-based assessments conducted by students and agronomists.

Students will identify diseased plants within the crop canopy by comparing aerial and ground-based data for crop research and inspection. Data will be collected by Volatus' flight crew team, with the participation of students from the PCI Science Experiential Aerial Research (SEAR) program.

Students will work with Volatus through a year-long program, taking part in almost every stage throughout the research process, including learning how to train machine learning algorithms to analyze data. Students will also take part in data collection flights at the Integrated Crop Management Services site to assess the growth conditions and other metrics.

Matthew Johnson, a former army captain and high school mathematics teacher, will lead the in-school portion of the SEAR program for Volatus. 

"Volatus has invested in our education programs because we recognize how important it is that drone technologies form part of the experience and learning of the next generation. I'm pleased that the Portage la Prairie School Division agrees with us and is investing in their kids' futures by signing up for a Science Experiential Aerial Research ("SEAR") program on crop disease," says Johnson. "The Portage la Prairie area is one of the best agricultural areas in Manitoba. In 2021, five per cent of Manitoba farmers reported using drones in their operations. That number will increase, and precision agriculture will be part of farming going forward. This program gives these kids a head-start."

Superintendent of the Portage la Prairie School Division Todd Cuddington says that the division was approached by Volatus Aerospace about this program.

"They (Volatus) have a progressive educational program that incorporates drone technology along with a lot of advanced computing, and they do some crop research. They brought this project forward, and the high school was immediately interested."

Cuddington says that PCI science teacher Nicole Nelissen and Principal Lawrence McKenzie have spearheaded the initiative and are excited to have PCI students working on this type of research using advanced technology. Nelissen, a biology teacher, will lead the PCI SEAR project starting in September.

"It really just seems to be so appropriate for PCI and Portage to Prairie to incorporate technology with agriculture and give students that opportunity so that in the future they have some skills that they may take into the Agri-industry," adds Cuddington.

The Superintendent notes that this unique program will run as a science club and most likely be available for grades 10/11/12. However, Cuddington adds that more details will become available in the fall once the project heats up.

The Portage la Prairie School Division points out that they received local financial support for this project courtesy of Southport Aerospace Centre Inc.

Photo Credit-Kate McKenna of Volatus Aerospace.Photo Credit-Kate McKenna of Volatus Aerospace.