UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center on cutting edge of precision agriculture
By Kelly Morgan
“Precision agriculture,” “artificial intelligence.” It sounds like content for a science fiction movie or TV show.
But we’re not talking about “The Avengers” or “Star Trek.”
These scientific innovations present us with real-world applications for farms in Southwest Florida and globally. Further, they signify something special to several of our scientists at the University of Florida’s research facility in Immokalee.
Those scientists include people such as Yiannis Ampatzidis.
Ampatzidis came to the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) about three years ago and quickly built a reputation as more than a gadget builder.
An agricultural engineer, Ampatzidis and his research team design technology that can perform many tasks farmers only dreamed about five or 10 years ago.
Look at his system for finding pests. It detects psyllids, the pin-sized insects that can infect citrus trees with the greening disease. If they know the insects’ locations, farmers can use the appropriate measures to control them. This saves farmers time and money – a distinct advantage to any farmer.
Ampatzidis’ technology could prove pivotal in the larger fight against the greening disease, which has caused citrus production to decline to unprecedented levels.
He also is developing artificial intelligence so that our plant pathologist, Pamela Roberts, can detect dangerous diseases that damage tomatoes, another crop that is economically significant to Southwest Florida. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida tomato growers harvested 26,000 acres with a production value of $425.9 million for 2019.
In addition to the work of Ampatzidis and Roberts, plant pathologist Ozgur Batuman is experimenting with a robotic arm to grip and puncture the tree trunk to more efficiently deliver nutrients and supportive agents that can help the tree fight the greening disease.
Another of our researchers, Ramdas Kanissery, shows promise with a system to put steam near trees to tamp down unwanted weeds near citrus. Weeds — many of which are invasive species — can impede citrus growth by intercepting soil-applied treatments. This machine utilizes a steamer that’s on a trailer and pulled by a tractor. The system includes tanks that convert water into steam, which is then channeled into a structure that applies steam to weeds. The treatments cost $34 per acre and can reduce the volume of chemicals used on farms, while still killing weeds around farmers’ crops.
Ampatzidis and Kanissery also have developed a system for weed management that sprays herbicide only on weeds, reducing chemical used
Although much of this technology is not yet available to growers, UF/IFAS researchers forge ahead with innovations. If we don’t study new systems to improve agricultural production, we fall behind global market demand for Florida crops.
With that in mind, someday, you might see robots running around on farms in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties. You also may notice them in the future across Florida as you traverse the state.
They’ll play a role in agricultural operations. You’ll still see tractors. But increasingly, you should get used to seeing unmanned aerial vehicles (better known to most as “drones”) and robotic-looking machinery on farms. They’re the wave of the future.
This ingenuity, only made possible through hours and hours of research in labs and fields by our land-grant university, enables farmers to maintain yields.
We support this technology because it’s how we help today’s farmers feed the growing population of Florida. Only through new ideas can UF/IFAS help Florida’s farmers.
Dr. Kelly Morgan is director of the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) in Immokalee. Click here to learn more about SWFREC.