Drones add tech -- and fun -- to farming at Waipahu High School

Feb. 12—Students at Waipahu High School have shown a lot more interest in agricultural and environmental studies this year since the opening of a state-of-the-art learning center that incorporates the latest in technology and allows them to spread their wings.

Farming might be a lot more fun if you could fly drones to monitor your fields.

Students at Waipahu High School have shown a lot more interest in agricultural and environmental studies this year since the opening of a state-of-the-art learning center that incorporates the latest in technology and allows them to spread their wings.

Since August the Academy of Natural Resources and the culinary arts department have occupied the $29 million, three-story Integrated Academy Learning Center.

Sherry Tenn, longtime director of the Natural Resources academy, one of the smallest academies on campus, said in the old building, traditional and natural farming methods, and aquaponics and hydroponics were taught on a small scale. With more space and using more high-tech equipment such as drones in the new center, Tenn said she will be able to demonstrate different systems of farming once everything is set up.

Students will learn "autogrow " methods for greenhouses and other indoor setups, which use technology to adjust water, cooling fans, light and other growing factors. The hydroponics garden used to be in a mesh tent outside the old building, but now a more sophisticated system has been installed next to her classroom. The long-term goal is to increase food production more efficiently as students learn sustainable growing methods, and to supply the school's culinary department and create a farmers market to serve the community.

Now that her classroom is much larger, students are learning about drones and geographic information systems to collect agricultural data and monitor environmental restoration projects. Tenn and another teacher became certified in using the drones and installed a mesh cage where students can practice. She hopes some of them eventually will become certified operators for career purposes.

Drones can photograph and map large areas, including remote swaths of land that may be difficult to reach every day, she said. They are a perfect fit for the academy's years-long restoration project at a Waipahu marsh near Kapakahi Stream, a 280-acre watershed where students have been removing invasive species and replacing them with native plants. They will be able to take photos and gain an aerial perspective of improvements.

But to start, everyone first had to learn to assemble 10 small drones (about 4 by 4 inches ), how the parts work and how to troubleshoot glitches in the system as they learned to operate the drones. Now students take turns practicing with two larger 6-inch drones that are easier to maneuver in the classroom cage. Once they are proficient, they will fly two larger commercial drones outside.

"Every day they're always asking, 'When can we fly ? Are we flying today ?'" Tenn said, laughing.

Those who were skilled at video games quickly picked up flying the drones, she said, but even the less experienced students have become adept at maneuvering them.

Senior Stephanie Arellano has been in the Natural Resources Academy for four years to prepare for a career in agriculture, with a particular interest in aquaculture.

"I want to be able to own my own farm and be able to use technology to advance farming and stop the shipping of produce from the States to here, " she said.

Both her parents inherited rice farms from their families in the Philippines, and she had a chance to work on one of them. Her dream is to help her family with their crops and methods of farming after she's gained experience working on her own farm in Hawaii, she said.

Moving into the new learning center has been "a great opportunity to learn different methods besides traditional farming. Being able to use drones to monitor a farm changed my whole perspective, like how I can actually enjoy my own life when I become a farmer, " Arellano said.

She and her classmates learned a lot by having to assemble the drones so they better understand the different parts and mechanics of the system.

George Hilger, a sophomore interested in a career in conservation or marine biology, said everyone is always excited to take their turn flying the drones through an obstacle course inside the cage, which is outfitted with hoops, arches and landing pads.

"I like playing with them ; I love just watching them !" Hinder said.

Choruses of "oohs, " "aahs, " "whoops, " "whoas, " and "good jobs !" punctuated the buzzing of the drone as it hovered and circled through the obstacles. "I landed it !" cheered a student after coming to a perfect landing on a floor pad.

Sophomore Shawdan Pacheco was a whiz at maneuvering the drones from the first day. Not only has he been a video game aficionado since he was a little kid ; he also flies drones for fun at home. Pacheco said he wants to become a farmer, nodding, "Drones make it a lot more fun !"

Aside from the novelty of learning new technology, the students are still getting their hands in the dirt, growing lettuce and other vegetables as well as native plants.

Tenn plans to devote a section of outdoor space to agro-forestry, which integrates food crops with native plants and trees in a more natural setting to better preserve the ecosystem.

Future plans include growing oysters and shrimp for scientific monitoring as well as food production. They are among a host of Tenn's dream projects.

Only a few of her 45 to 50 students, mostly sophomores, in her two natural resources and wildlife management classes are interested in farming as a livelihood ; the majority want to pursue careers in environmental conservation. But by showing them different systems of farming that don't involve being outdoors and digging in the dirt, and getting them interested in the technological opportunities, Tenn said she hopes more of them will enter the agriculture industry, perhaps in operating drones, data collection and record-keeping, management or marketing.