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College helps drone industry take off

A drone flies over Kentland Farm in Blacksburg, Virginia.

A drone flies over Kentland Farm in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Kentland Farm has many of the traditional features you might find at an agricultural research facility. Researchers work on rows of crops to develop better ways to grow a host of vegetables, and cows meander on the hillsides above the brand new Dairy Science Complex. But in the air above them, a new frontier of agricultural science is buzzing.

Drones — also called unmanned aerial vehicles — are a common site at the farm where the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory is located. There, Associate Professor David Schmale flies drones that are sampling microbes floating high above the Earth. Some of these microbes have the potential to cause devastating plant diseases.
Kentland Farm and Schmale are part of Virginia Tech’s mission to be a leader in
the burgeoning drone industry.

Introducing commercial unmanned aerial vehicles to U.S. skies could add more than $13.6 billion to the national economy by the end of the decade.

Virginia Tech: Microorganisms on atmospheric waves from VirginiaTech on Vimeo.

The university is part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which is developing infrastructure for private companies and other organizations to develop unmanned aircraft.

Introducing commercial unmanned aerial vehicles to U.S. skies could add more than $13.6 billion to the national economy by the end of the decade, with totals reaching as high as $82.1 billion by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“We are transitioning new types of aircraft into the nation’s skies that have tremendous potential to help people and create new industry,” said Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands. “Unmanned aircraft will be useful for agriculture, search-and-rescue missions, disaster response, research, and innovations. With the onset of a new technology, industries are born and new infrastructure evolves — the economic impacts will be enormous.”

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Big peanuts are big business

In recent years, Bailey, Sugg, Titan, Sullivan, and Wynne have brought millions of dollars into the commonwealth.

These aren’t companies or entrepreneurs or even scientists. They are peanuts.

Extension specialist Maria Balota works with peanut producers to develop the best varieties suitable to the commonwealth’s climate.

Extension specialist Maria Balota works with peanut producers to develop the best varieties suitable to the commonwealth’s climate.

Researchers from Virginia Tech, working in conjunction with partners and peanut breeders in North and South Carolina, have developed and tested a constant stream of new Virginia peanut cultivars over the last 40 years that are as profitable as they are hearty.

“Farmers we work with not only benefit from the work we do, but also help guide our research in terms of telling us what characteristics they would like to see in new Virginia peanut strains,” said Maria Balota, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science who is also an Extension specialist.

The Peanut Variety and Quality Evaluation Program is the only publicly funded program of its kind in the world that focuses solely on peanuts.

The big, gourmet Virginia peanuts are big business in the region. In the banner year of 2012, they had a production value of $210 million in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Two varieties with extra-large pods that Balota’s group has grown — Bailey and Sugg — have added more than $16 million in value to the crops.

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