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University of Florida partners on $26M grant to produce more crops with less water and energy

Above: The University of Florida Phenogator, an example of the technology that will be utilized at UF as part of the IoT4Ag Center. The Phenogator is a multi-purpose vehicle that uses sensors in combination with highly accurate GPS technology to collect data that is analyzed using artificial intelligence methods to assess plant traits and disease symptoms. The vehicle is also equipped to apply variable rates and mixtures of pesticides and/or nutrients and will be used as part of research efforts to optimize crop inputs, improve efficiency and minimize environmental impact.

University of Florida is partnering on a $26 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop new technologies and systems that will help farmers produce more food with less water and energy. The grant is the latest development in UF’s artificial intelligence (AI) initiative, which will expand the use of AI across academic degrees and programs and accelerate the research that can help address society’s most pressing challenges.

University of Pennsylvania is the lead institution on the grant, which also includes Purdue University and University of California Merced. Research will be headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania, the Center for the Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture (IoT4Ag), which is one of four NSF Engineering Research Centers established this month. The other research centers focus on quantum networks, sustainable roadway electrification and cryogenic technologies.

The research will help position U.S. farmers to produce healthy amounts of crops and remain internationally competitive, even as the global population expands and resources become scarcer.

In addition to developing new technologies, the Center will educate students, engineers, agriculture professionals and other members of farming communities through audience-specific lessons and hands-on, classroom, laboratory and field activities. Bringing together academic, government and industry partners with the farming community, the Center will create an innovation ecosystem that rapidly translates practices and technologies into commercial products and economic impact.

UF will be represented by at least a dozen faculty members and graduate students from the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the College of Education.

David Arnold, George Kirkland Engineering Leadership Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is co-principal investigator on the NSF grant and site director for the UF site.

He outlined UF’s role in the multi-institution engineering research center. “UF is a major partner in all facets of this initiative. We will leverage our diverse resources, ranging from the recently announced NVIDIA AI supercomputer and our nanotechnology facilities to the agricultural research and Extension centers located throughout the state. I am excited to help synergize expertise and innovation from multiple departments and colleges,” he said.

Cammy Abernathy, Dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, commented on the importance of the engineering research center to UF’s vision, saying, “As a 21st century land-grant university, and with UF’s groundbreaking AI university initiative, we are in the optimal position to contribute to food, energy and water security for the society of the future. I am very proud of the role our multidisciplinary team is playing in this effort.”

Diane Rowland, professor of plant physiology and chair of the Agronomy Department and director of the Center for Stress Resilient Agriculture, will help lead the Agricultural Sensor Systems team.

David Miller, professor of research and evaluation methodology, joins the interdisciplinary team to help ensure clear and meaningful results are gleaned from the project. “As our work in AI expands, having expertise in research evaluation within diverse applications is critical to our efforts to strengthen society,” said College of Education Dean Glenn Good. “Dr. Miller’s work, both as a professor and school director, have advanced the college in dynamic ways to ensure UF remains leader in all areas of research.”

The combination of diverse expertise makes the new Center unique, Rowland said.

“For this research project to work, plant scientists had to team up with engineers. Plant scientists can explain what information we need from the field and what it means. Guided by this understanding, engineers can design systems and AI that can transmit, gather and interpret that information quickly and at a large scale. Ultimately, the kinds of systems we hope to develop would not only detect a problem in the field but tell a farmer the best way to respond,” she said.

Scott Angle, UF vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of UF/IFAS, said integrating AI and agriculture is a top priority in the years ahead.

“America’s farmers already work hard. The science from this grant will help them work smarter. That is the only way to keep them globally competitive and able to help feed a projected 10 billion people by mid-century,” Angle said. “The support of the NSF, added to UF’s recently announced AI initiative, will accelerate us toward an era of precision agriculture in which farmers give each individual plant in a field what it needs with a minimum of water, fuel and fertilizer.”

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