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Devon Russell is Mitchell Tech’s #1 Drone Guy

Joining the Mitchell Tech team in 2013 as a Precision Technology Specialist instructor, Russell quickly aided Mitchell Tech in leading the flock toward the future by creating the state’s first drone programs.

Under Russell’s leadership, Mitchell Tech launched the Geospatial Technologies program in 2015. Later that year, he was named head of what is now known as the Precision Ag Technology department. Russell uses drones with students in both programs.

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“It’s a cool technology that increases your efficiency. It’s the future, and we wanted to be ahead of the curve or on it,” the Pierre native recalled. “Students learn to operate drones in order to help them make informed decisions as (ag) producers, and … on the geospatial side, they can be used by utility companies and to increase efficiencies for (Geographic Information Systems and Global Positioning System) applications.

“It’s been good for recruitment, because it’s the new, exciting thing. When potential students come to campus, their eyes will light up” at the sight of drones, but Russell reminds us that “it’s not just a toy – we use it as a tool.”

Mitchell Tech also piloted the state’s first drone check-out program.


“We applied for a (National Science Foundation) grant, which was increasing the pipeline to rural educators in the geospatial technologies, teaching them how to use GPS, GIS and drones,” he said.

Mitchell Tech paved the way for Geospatial Technologies at the collegiate level and spread interest into middle through high schools by providing training on GPS, GIS and drones to 80 South Dakota educators in 2017-2018, then launched the check-out program in 2019. Still, the program allows educators to borrow from MTC’s fleet of 10 drones ranging from consumer to industrial grade. Russell said they are an invaluable tool for career and technical education programs, many of which are “flying that direction.” On the Precision Ag side, drones can be used for crop mapping, scouting and spraying. And their use continues to increase in other sectors.

“It’s the way a lot of industries are going,” he said. “One drone flight can save (a mining company) $50,000 for surveying. It used to take two weeks to go out and manually survey, but they can do it in half a day” and with a smaller workforce now. “They even use a drone to check compliance for safety glasses and hardhats. It’s zero tolerance if they catch their employees not wearing them.”

Russell said the opportunities for working in GIS are “endless.”

“My past graduates have gone into pretty much every sector of the workforce, using GIS in agriculture, energy, telecommunications, government and healthcare,” among others, he said, adding that, in the surge of COVID, the maps highlighting community spread were all programmed with GIS technology.

One student provides mapping services all over the country for a Sioux Falls company, and another, who graduated with degrees in both Geospatial Technology and Powerline Construction and Maintenance, is now monitoring weather and the power grid, using GIS to buy and sell energy for an electric cooperative, making well over $80,000 per year.

Working Backward

Russell’s interest in drone technology began shortly after his 2013 graduation from South Dakota State University, where he studied Geography and Geographic Information Systems, with an emphasis in teaching. While in college, he began working in row crop and custom applications for Mid Dakota Vegetation Management.

Shortly after joining the Mitchell Tech team, he began researching drones and their use in agricultural and other applications, which was just starting at that time.

“It was all self-taught, because when I was going to school, classes weren’t available” when they first came on the market, Russell said.

The Mitchell Tech curriculum was built by “working it backward,” he said, meeting with industrial advisors to learn about their future workforce needs.

“Once you have the goals and competencies of what it will take to make a student successful in their future endeavors … you build the curriculum backward to meet those needs. I had great industry partners, a very supportive Mitchell Tech team and am luckily still working in the industry part-time to build that foundation.”

And his self-education continues, too. In 2020, he earned his Master’s degree in Agricultural Education from SDSU, and said he is still learning.

“The technologies are always evolving. Keeping up with the change makes you very adaptable and also a student at the same time. There are times when something brand new comes out and you are learning and working through it at the same time with the students,” Russell said, adding that he stays up-to-date with industry needs as he continues to work with Mid Dakota Vegetation Management as their GIS manager. “This makes you very relatable to the students and also shows the students that you must also always keep learning to stay on the top of your field.”

The drone industry has evolved immensely since Russell started working in it a decade ago, when commercial operators were required to have a full pilot’s licenses. In 2016, the FAA opened the door for educational and commercial operators to have a Part 107 Remote Pilot License – a test for which Mitchell Tech’s programs prepare students.

“Thankfully, they adapted the regulations to meet what the technology is capable of” before MTC started using drones, he said, adding that “it is only getting better. Today’s drones are super easy to fly, compared to when they first came out. They can be fully automated if you want that.”

And he predicts that evolution to continue into the future.

“The future for both programs will progress more into autonomous technologies. While some may think this will decrease the number of jobs for Precision or Geospatial, it will actually have the opposite effect,” he said. “There will be an even bigger demand for both programs, as the technology needs workers that can troubleshoot, set up, and understand the workflow of the technology to really put it to use.”

Due to the projected increased need for skilled drone operators in the future, the Federal Aviation Administration is looking to schools like Mitchell Tech to guide other colleges in developing similar programs. Recently, Russell was invited to speak at the FAA’s conference, Droning On: Great Lakes Edition at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D.

The goal of the presentation, which was held in the heart of drone and drone policy testing country, was to share Mitchell Tech’s drone story, in an effort to create a consortium of resources that can be shared among the more than 50 schools that now offer such curricula, as well as to other schools that may be interested in starting programs.

“I spoke on how we established the drone program, what we’ve been doing with them, and how we help the community with them,” he said.

While more and more schools are offering drone training, Russell said Mitchell Tech’s will continue to lead the way.

“You get hands-on training with current technology and methods being used in the field,” and field trips to industry partners allow students to get a look at the future of the industry, he said. Plus, the multifaceted training they receive prepares graduates well for the workforce. “There are a lot of different directions you can take once completing school and if you do not like your first job (you can) easily transition into a different area.”

When Russell isn’t learning about or teaching the latest technology, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Kendra, and their 2-year-old son, Liam. They enjoy spending time with their extended families, being outdoors, traveling and eating good food.


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