By John Bays/Lodi News-Sentinel Staff Writer
As the sun rose over a tomato field at Sanguineti Family Farms in Stockton on Friday morning, 24 students from 4-H programs across San Joaquin County gathered to watch Jim Oliver of Shadowquad Aerial Imaging demonstrate a drone he assembled himself designed to pollinate orchard crops.
The students moved closer to the drone, which Oliver said can carry approximately 1 kilogram of pollen and spread it over 16 feet per drop after being charged with static electricity generated by carbon fiber propeller blades, allowing the pollen to better cling to the plants.
“I also have a device that drops live, beneficial bugs for organic farms,” Oliver said. “We can do 10 to 15 acres in 12 minutes. It buzzes along at about 12 miles an hour.”
Designed by the startup company Dropcopter, the drone also features a barometer to read weather conditions, a gyroscope for stability and two GPS systems for increased accuracy, Oliver said, although signals from nearby cell phone towers or power lines can interfere with the navigation.
Oliver cautioned the students to stay clear of the propeller blades, which he said rotate in different directions to enable the drone to fly in a straight line, as they can cause injuries once the motor starts.
“It’s important to be very careful, because that thing can chop your hand right off,” Oliver said. “When you’re dealing with carbon fiber blades and they’re spinning, they’re like flying knives.”
Because drones can tolerate higher temperatures and do not require sleep like humans do, Oliver said they will likely replace human workers for physical labor such as pollination in the coming years which is why he believes learning to operate drones could lead to more career opportunities in agriculture for the students.
“In the future, there are going to be a lot more robots, and that’s going to mean a lot less jobs unless you know how to run a robot,” Oliver said
Oliver instructed the students to stand approximately 50 feet away from the drone for safety, before using his laptop to enter a series of waypoints in the drone’s GPS system to create a flight plan.
The drone beeped as it received the information, and Oliver armed the drone with a safety switch before telling the students to hide underneath a large piece of farming equipment should the drone malfunction.
“It probably won’t happen, but if I say ‘go,’ I want you all to dive under that thing,” Oliver said.
The propellers whirred to life as Oliver started the motor, and the drone flew approximately 25 feet above the tomatoes, moving from waypoint to waypoint with minimal steering before landing almost exactly where it started.
“With that dual GPS, it’s fairly accurate when it lands,” Oliver said.
After Oliver disarmed the drone, he put away the remote controller before answering questions and chatting with fascinated students such as 9-year-old Jaden Young of Woodbridge.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that big,” Young said. “The cool part was it went all the way to the field and back, and landed right where it started.”
Noah Salters, 10, and his sister Rachel, 11, both homeschooled students from Lodi, also enjoyed the drone demonstration.
“I loved it. It was huge,” Noah said.
“It was amazing. I’ve never seen a drone that big before,” Rachel said.
Lucia Frederick, 11, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Lodi, was impressed by Oliver’s ability to program and pilot the drone.
“It was really cool that he put in the flight plan and it copied the exact same thing,” Frederick said.
Kahiwa Kaahanui, a 10-year-old from Lodi who will begin fifth grade at George Lincoln Mosher Elementary School next week, was as impressed by Oliver’s presentation as she was with the drone’s potential for use in agriculture.
“I loved that he built it himself, and that it can help the plants,” Kaahanui said.
The students then boarded their bus and returned to the Robert J. Cabral Agricultural Center in Stockton to eat lunch before assembling their own drones for the last day of AgTech, a week-long summer camp part of the ALL Together Now program, a series of summer camps created by the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation and San Joaquin County 4-H program.
“It’s introducing them to different technology in agriculture, and it’s designed to bring in kids who maybe aren’t exposed to agriculture but are interested in technology like irrigation, drones and building corrals,” said Rachel Fleming, SJFB’s program director.
Fleming said this is the first year the two organizations have hosted the camp, and that the idea came about last winter when she met with Emma Fete, San Joaquin County 4-H’s youth development advisor.
After a post-lunch round of musical chairs, Fete instructed the students to line up in groups of two or three before she passed out kits containing the materials needed to build a small drone.
The students sat at tables and began sorting the small interlocking building blocks and other drone parts and waited for Fete, Fleming or one of the teen advisors to check that no pieces are missing before the students began assembling the drones.
“Once you are done building, you will get batteries,” Fete said.
As each team finished building their drone, they moved to another room with a carpeted floor where Fete explained how to use the two joysticks on the controllers, which strongly resembled those used for video game consoles, to operate the throttle and steering.
“Those are really the only two controls you’re going to need,” Fete said.
After learning that one controller could cause multiple drones in the other room to start flying, Fete had every team unplug their drones before instructing one team at a time to plug them back in.
At Fete’s instruction, the students stood clear of each drone as it took off, some hovering and others flying across the room before inevitably crashing into a wall, table chair or the floor where they broke apart, eliciting laughter from the children each time.
“It’s supposed to break apart,” Fete said. That way if it hits something, you can put it back together.”
Some students, such as 12-year-old Mia Sporleder, who will start seventh grade at Lockeford Elementary School next week, accidentally crossed their wires when assembling the drones which caused them to spin in the air before crashing, although they were able to correct their mistakes with help from the advisors.
“It was nice, but it kept getting twisted when we put the wires in the wrong place,” Sporleder said.
Despite her error, Sporleder said she just might continue studying and working with drones in the future.
“It’s a possibility,” Sporleder said.
While the last teams flew their drones around the room, students such as Kaahanui and her partner Rachel Salter thought back to other activities they participated in over the past week such as building corral fences at McPhee Red Angus in Lodi or designing packaging for peaches at Morada Produce as they filled out questionnaires which Fleming said will be used to improve the program for next year.
“I like that we can explore lots of things and cool places, like seeing the drones and building the drones,” Kaahanui said.
“I liked seeing the cows,” Salter said.