Technology class hopes drone project can aid area cranberry growers

Dec 24, 2017

Old Rochester technology teacher MJ Linane has big plans to help local cranberry growers—access to drones which can keep them competitive as climate change begins to affect their crops.

His idea is a popular one, with Samsung at any rate—the project idea has just been awarded $25,000 in the company's national "Solve for Tomorrow" challenge.

Linane said that he has wanted to add drones to the technology course at Old Rochester for some time. The remote-controlled flying machines have made strong headway into mainstream use. Today, farmers are beginning to use them to water and fertilize crops.

The costs of acquiring drone kits are prohibitive though. Linane estimated that a decent kit for a smaller drone would run about $3,000 per kit; a larger model would run more around $6,000.

"It doesn't cost much afterward, but the investment is by far the most cost-intensive in terms of acquiring technology," Linane explained.

Deep in the heart of cranberry country though, Linane realized there was a learning opportunity available—and the promise of help for small-scale cranberry growers. That was, if he could find funding.

One funding opportunity nearly fell into his lap. The Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” contest runs every year. It asks high school students around the country to solve problems in their community using science, technology, arts, engineering and math (STEAM). Linane stumbled across the competition and sent in a description of his dream project to the competition almost at the close of nominations. The proposal states that students will design a custom drone that will help local growers monitor the moisture content in soil for more effective, targeted watering.

"The competition said local challenges, and what's more local to this area than cranberries?" Linane asked. "This area is cranberries."

Linane referenced a report which appeared last year. The report declared that small-scale cranberry growers are at the highest risk of suffering from climate change. “The bigger companies have the technology to keep the effects at bay a bit,” he explained, “but the smaller growers don’t have the money or access to the same technology. If they want to stay competitive in the industry, they need this technology.”

Linane is sure that studying drones will be a win-win situation for local growers and Old Rochester students. “I’d like to have the students engineering the drones, designing them, assembling them and piloting them,” he explained. "Then, they would work in collaboration with local cranberry growers to help them. The real-world experience is ideal."

In November, Linane found out that Old Rochester's drone project had been short-listed as one of the top five projects entered from Massachusetts; the project was up against schools in Canton, Newton, Salem and Foxborough.

Old Rochester topped them all.

In December, Linane was notified that Old Rochester’s project idea had swept the state finals; it will now represent the entirety of Massachusetts as it faces off against 50 other projects submitted by technology classes in all 50 states.

The state victory netted Linane's technology class a $25,000 technology package from Samsung; about the cost of eight small drone kits.

Already, events are in motion. John Porter, the Director of Research at A.D. Makepeace—a large cranberry company based in Wareham—contacted Linane after he heard that ORR was a state finalist. It turns out that students and scientists UMASS Dartmouth’s Cranberry Experiment Station [based in East Wareham] are already working on drone technology in the cranberry industry. “He was interested in working out a way to get Old Rochester’s students involved,” Linane said.

Meanwhile, Linane's technology class is working on a video for the next round of the Solve for Tomorrow competition.

If Old Rochester is named one of the 10 national finalists, the school will receive an further $50,000 technology package and a chance to travel to the pitch competition in Washington DC. There they will pitch their idea to a panel of judges; seven schools will receive a $50,000 technology package, and three will be selected as national winners.

The three national winners will receive a $150,000 Samsung technology package.

In addition, 10 of the national finalists will be eligible to win a further $20,000 technology kit, based on social media voting. Social media voting will begin in late February of 2018.