Students’ drone can help farmers, environment

By Wayne Bryan Published March 31, 2014 at 8:18 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Hot Springs High School student Chris Stephens powers up a drone for a demonstration during the 15th annual state EAST Conference in Hot Springs. Students in the EAST — Environmental and Spatial Technologies — program at Hot Springs High School are attempting to show the effects of runoff from agricultural areas on the Gulf of Mexico. The drone gives them an aerial view of such effects, including the dead zone in the Gulf.

Throughout the three days of the 15th annual EAST Conference last week, more than 2,000 students raced through the Hot Springs Convention Center attending scientific discussions, visiting with students from other schools and buying snacks from the concession stands.

Yet many students stopped and gathered around a display from Hot Springs High School when members of the school’s EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technologies) lab started the engines of their remote-controlled flying machine.

The drone flyer was built by the students and was tethered to a wooden frame and weighted down with a 20-pound weight, junior Chris Stephens said.

“They would not allow it to fly around the building,” he said, “but everyone comes around when we start up the motors.”

The small drone is part of a project to aid agriculture and to help protect the environment. The project, taken on by the Hot Springs EAST students, connects farming in the Delta region of the state with environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico.

“There is a dead zone in the Gulf,” said Elizabeth Snider, a sophomore at Hot Springs High.

She and other EAST students went to Louisiana to take a look at the problem areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We never found the dead zone; we could not go that far offshore,” Snider said. “But we did take some samples and found lower oxygen levels that were affecting life in the water.”

The lack of oxygen in the Gulf waters is thought to be related to runoff water from agricultural operations that flows into the Mississippi River and enter the Gulf.

“There is more going on in the Gulf than just the oil spill,” Snider said.

Kayln Edge, another sophomore member of the team, explained that because of the lost islands and bayous that were once part of the lower Mississippi before being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the runoff and the fertilizers and other chemicals spayed on crops are not as well filtered before entering the Gulf and are pushed farther out into deeper waters.

“Things like pesticides and silt washed from the farmlands upriver are now going directly into the Gulf with a huge impact on the environment,” she said. “We went to a farm in Stuttgart where they are using new fertilizers and treatments that are not as bad, and we learned how what they are doing in Arkansas is linked to the Gulf.”

The farm is where the drone flies into the picture.

Stephens said the hovering capabilities of the aircraft and the GPS tracking system can place the drone within 4 feet of any spot on Earth.

“Then it can take pictures or carry saline sensors to see what areas have been overtreated or have not received enough treatment,” the student said. “We can even use the drone to treat a specific spot in the field, unlike crop dusting, which spreads chemicals over a wide area.”

Along with the team’s research and technological developments, members of the Hot Springs East team have made a video that creates a connection between upriver farming and the dead zone in the Gulf.

“We have made a documentary that will explain the link between farming here and the dead zone in the Gulf,” said Michael Vincent, a teacher and EAST team

facilitator at Hot Springs High. “State legislators are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to see what the state could do to address the problem, and they are interested in using our research because it is unbiased. We are not backed by big agricultural corporations or linked with the government.”

Other members of the team from Hot Springs High School were active in the conference. Belen Vinueza, Bryttani Bartlett and Spencer Jones served on the documentation team. Vinueza was a social-media reporter, Bartlett was co-director of the videography team and Jones was a videographer for events at the conference.

The research and presentation created by the EAST lab in Hot Springs placed the team among the finalists for the Timothy R. Stephenson Founder’s Award for the program that best exemplifies the mission of the EAST Initiative.

The award was presented March 21 and was won by the team from Sonora Elementary School in Springdale. This was the first time an elementary school had won the award.

In other awards, the EAST team at Bismarck High School won $500 for the best lip-dub video. Skyler Shankles of Bismarck was on the ambassador team at the conference and spoke at the opening meeting and the awards banquet.

Alec Ahlbrandt from Hot Springs Lakeside High School and David Hager from Fountain Lake High School served on the tech support team, assisting teams from around the state during the conference.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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