Sentera, a global technology company that devises hardware and software to interface with precision agriculture equipment such as planters and fertilizer applicators, employs three types of technicians:
- engineering technicians who work in the Minnesota company’s lab to build prototypes of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), sensors, and cameras;
- geospatial information system (GIS) technicians who create maps with layers of data; and
- aerial imaging technicians who pilot UASs, also known as drones, in the field.
During a recent interview via Zoom, Todd Colten, Sentera’s chief aerospace engineer and director of Flight Services, discussed the rapid pace of change in agriculture technology and related industries, the skills he looks for when hiring technicians, and the attributes he anticipates UAS employers will be seeking in 10 years. Digital literacy is the answer to the last question, but the specific digital skills won’t be known for a few years when “some other new widget or some other new advanced capability” emerges.
“Everything is always changing,” he said, pointing to his company’s plan to add 30 GIS technicians to its current contingent of 15 by June to illustrate his point.
“When we started the company [in 2015] we weren’t even aware there was such a thing as a GIS technician as a person — and there were. But there weren’t a lot of them. Just over the last five years we’ve seen that industry explode. It’s largely construction, government, other types of industries that are using that skill set but we’re starting to bring them into agriculture the same way….
“They are modern-day cryptographers. They are modern-day map makers. But the fact is we have so much information, so much more information now to make maps it’s not just lines on a piece of paper. It’s all sorts of data that geospatially belongs to a place on the world,” he said.
He’s noticed many GIS technicians are outdoorsy people who like to work in the field, but there is a greater need for them to sit at their desks “to crank out data and maps.” He anticipates the trend for GIS technicians to analyze data will continue to grow. The high-resolution imagery his company gathers already makes it possible to count the number of tassels on a corn stalk to gauge crop health and to project output.
His company expects entry-level GIS technicians to have basic fluency with the main GIS software programs. But rather than seeking expertise in a particular software program, the company looks for individuals who understand GIS concepts within the emerging discipline. “We’re trying to hire someone who understands how to think geospatially and apply large data sets,” he said.
Sentera’s engineering technicians perform cross-discipline tasks in the lab and production shop. This requires mechanical and electrical engineering skills coupled with computer literacy sufficient to run an open source operating system and enter commands into the software.
He predicts that in the future agriculture technology companies will continue to need engineering technicians with a mix of knowledge of electronic and mechanical systems as well as computer hardware and software skills because of more widespread use of microprocessors, digital cameras, and sensors. As is the case now, these types of equipment are not unique to agriculture so demand for engineering technicians with versatile skills will likely come from many industries.
Aerial Imaging Technicians – Drone Pilots
UAS operators, who are also known as drone pilots, must be able to fly the small unmanned aircraft in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and understand the inner-workings of the aircraft well enough to inspect, calibrate, maintain, and fix them in the field.
“They are flying robots so they have propulsion systems that make them fly and hover. They have onboard sensors and electronics, diagnostic systems, and that type of thing….There’s power systems like batteries and how all that works, positioning sensors of GPS, barometric altimeter sensors, gyros and accelerometers,” he said. He likened the present “early days” state of UAS technologies to tractors that farmers repaired themselves.
He predicted that in 10 years drones will be deployed from barns on programmed schedules or operated remotely by technicians.
“It’s going to be less like a pilot and more like an air traffic controller type of position,” he said, noting this will require federal policy changes to allow unattended drone flights. Currently, the FAA requires one pilot to manage each UAS flight as it occurs.