Federal grant looks to expand student involvement in ongoing drone research

John Church displays one of the drones used in his ranching research. He and collaborator David Hill received a federal research grant that will bring TRU students onto their research team. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

John Church displays one of the drones used in his ranching research. He and collaborator David Hill received a federal research grant that will bring TRU students onto their research team. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

TRU has announced more than half of a federal research grant for a project monitoring cattle and mapping ranchlands via drones will go towards expanding student involvement.

John Church and David Hill, natural resource science and geography faculty and collaborators on the research project focused on precision ranching, have received the College-University Idea to Innovation grant of $663,940 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Church and Hill have partnered with Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and Kingsclere Ranch in Golden, B.C. and the research project is now valued at approximately $1.1 million.

“This grant will train a new generation of scientists to use technology to promote maintaining the health of the planet,” said Associate VP Research and Graduate Studies Will Garrett-Petts at a press conference. He added that the grant goes towards student development at TRU through participation in Hill and Church’s research.

Jake Bradshaw, fourth year natural resource science honours student, analyzes an aerial map taken by a drone. Bradshaw is one of six undergraduate researchers chosen to help faculty John Church and David Hill after they received $663,940 in federal funding. (Martin Mcfarlane/The Omega)

Jake Bradshaw, fourth year natural resource science honours student, analyzes an aerial map taken by a drone. Bradshaw is one of six undergraduate researchers chosen to help faculty John Church and David Hill after they received $663,940 in federal funding. (Martin Mcfarlane/The Omega)

The project uses drones with infrared sensors to observe cattle from the air. Combined with new RFID tag technology in cattle developed by SAIT, ranchers can identify a specific cow in the herd remotely.

At the announcement, Church jokingly said that his and Hill’s research monitoring cattle was listed on the internet as “the number-one craziest use of drones.”

Jokes aside, the research funding has a serious application for TRU students.

“Students will be trained as leaders in a new field,” asserted Church, also saying that they will be linking with the project’s partners and do their own networking.

With the funding, Hill and Church have been able to recruit six TRU undergraduate students, one master’s student, and a post-doctorate fellow who has studied at both TRU and MIT. The undergraduate students come from multiple disciplines including natural resource sciences, geography and biology.

The students will be managing different projects related to the use of drones on ranchlands. Hill and Church’s own research has potential to determine if cattle are diseased by infrared body temperature, determine healthy and unhealthy vegetation over a large area and to create ultra-high precision maps with details “up to the sub-centimetre.”

In an interview with The Omega, Church said that the federal funding gives an opportunity for students involved to get experience producing research in cutting-edge technology. For his project, it means more ways to explore and apply the machines to the ranching industry and agriculture.

“The student takes over their project,” Church said. “It’s their project to run.”

While use of drones will not replace ranch workers, it would allow them to manage their land much more efficiently and to cover more ground in less time.

The students are receiving training on drones made by Chinese tech company DJI, who according to Forbes account for 70 per cent of the market.

In the future, Church could see other imaging technologies being added to the drones, providing further research opportunities.

SAIT researchers also received funding for student positions, and are designing antennas for the drones and solar-powered RFID tags.