Aiding Agriculture from Above

Bradley students developed a camera mount for the drone "hovering" above. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
June 13, 2016

A small bracket may appear insignificant in the world of agricultural drones, but it’s actually a complex piece that took Bradley mechanical engineering students a year to develop. The mount gives high-tech cameras greater range of motion, which will make it easier for farmers to digitally monitor fields.

Five seniors — Drew Peters, Elizabeth Dutcher, Mitch Moushon, Caleb Luka and Jake Krabbe — shepherded the project for Precision Drone, an Indiana company that builds agricultural drones. It was the second project for Precision Drone guided by professor Dr. Bob Podlasek.

The team started with the concept in the fall, worked with the company to develop a project scope, tested and tweaked until they completed the project in the spring.

By year’s end, the mount — one of 22 mechanical engineering senior capstone projects this year — proved workable, durable and cost-effective.

“Coming from a farm town, it’s rewarding to contribute something useful to a product my family and friends could be using,” said Luka, a Decatur, Illinois, native. “This is a tool to help farmers see crops as they grow and learn what needs to be done to produce a better harvest.”

Digitally monitoring fields with a drone increases farmers’ profitability through early identification of pest infestation, reduction of fertilizer and herbicide applications and discovery of drainage issues.

The year tested the team’s ability to apply four years of engineering projects and merge each teammate’s interests into the group. Though the team lacked strong drone knowledge to start, members brought business acumen, 3-D modeling experience and communication skills that proved valuable.

Those complementary skills yielded dividends as the team attacked the project, which was designed to model the process of real-world product development. Tight first-semester deadlines pushed the business and marketing aspect. That gave way to models, batteries of tests, redesigns, cost analyses, more tests and models, and finally, a finished product.

“It was interesting to see our classes come together as we put theory into practice,” said Moushon, of East Peoria. “Now we can say we’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool and we know how to swim.”

Students, used to approaching engineering problems from a macro perspective, were forced to zoom in and address smaller technical issues as they brought computer drawings to life. As Dutcher, a Williamston, Michigan, native, observed, the challenge enhanced their understanding of product development.

“It was good being thrown into something we weren’t experts on,” she said. “We usually concentrate on big-picture perspectives, but we dealt with things like electricity, materials and applications. We learned so much about so many things for less than a half-pound of plastic.”

All students left the capstone with unique experiences that will set them apart as they begin professional careers.

“Bradley students are one step ahead of other students because of experiences like this,” Dutcher said. “We’ve got experience in everything — design, business, business, time and project management. We all understand how business and engineering work together.”