US National Science Foundation grant establishes new IoT4Ag research centre

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The University of Pennsylvania, UC Merced, Purdue University and the University of Florida have received a US$26 million, five-year National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers (ERC) grant to form the NSF Engineering Research Center for the Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture (IoT4Ag). ERC are NSF’s flagship engineering programs for convergent research to address large-scale societal challenges.

Those challenges are considerable: By 2050, the US population is estimated to grow to 400 million, and the world population to 9.1 billion, requiring a 70% increase in global food production.

The overall mission of IoT4Ag is to ensure food, energy and water security by developing technology to increase crop production while minimising the use of energy and water resources and lessening the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. It also aims to create a diverse talent pipeline consisting of students, engineers, agriculture professionals and other members of farming communities through the development of audience-specific lessons and hands-on classroom, laboratory and field activities.

By bringing together academic, government and industry partners with the farming community, the new facility hopes to create an innovation ecosystem that ensures the rapid translation of IoT4Ag practices and technologies into commercial products, while also ensuring that such a transformation is built with sustainable positive economic and social impact in mind.

“The NSF Engineering Research Center for the Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture (IoT4Ag) unites faculty and students from the University of Pennsylvania, Purdue University, the University of California at Merced, and the University of Florida with government and industry partners, establishing a convergence of expertise in agronomy, agricultural engineering, socio-economics, environmental science, and the science and engineering of physical and cyber-physical systems needed to transform agriculture,” said a statement posted on the NSF’s website.

IoT4Ag institutions are located in US regions of intense agricultural production and represent the diversity of both crops and agricultural environments across the country. The coverage of these diverse geographical locations will ensure that a broad range of crop types will benefit from the research, education, and training of IoT4Ag, leading to the successful transformation of agricultural practices for a sustainable and secure future.

Robots and drones
The IoT4Ag team will investigate how the complex systems of plant and environmental variables affect crop yield and resilience. To accomplish this task, researchers will focus on the development of low-cost sensor technologies to measure these variables at relevant spatial and temporal scales. To utilise these sensors and the data collected, IoT4Ag will develop agriculture-specific communication technologies that relay data from sensors to both relevant farming equipment and to the cloud by autonomous aerial and ground-based robots equipped to be deployed at field scale.

Meanwhile, data-driven models will capture plant physiology, soil properties and dynamics, historical weather trends and future forecasts, management practice variations, and socio-economic trends to provide farmers the situational awareness necessary for smart agricultural intervention and improved outcomes.

Through the research and development of these proposed technologies and solutions, IoT4Ag will educate a diverse workforce of pre-college students, community college students, university students, and agriculture professionals through audience-specific lessons and hands-on classroom, laboratory, and field activities.

“We aim to engineer cost-effective systems that farmers will adopt,” said professor Catherine Keske, who is UC Merced’s campus lead for the new initiative. “We’ll be building upon the momentum UC Merced already has developed in precision agriculture.”

“The research and related efforts that will be conducted through this grant are important to the well-being of our region by seeking to develop technologies that will improve and sustain agricultural practices,” added UC Merced’s engineering dean, Mark Matsumoto. “I am very pleased that we are a part of this important endeavour — one that points to the emerging recognition of the school and the campus.”

“We want to include everyone who has a perspective on engineering ag, from farmers, farm workers and the children of farm workers among our student body to government and industry partners,” concluded Keske. “We can create the tech and infrastructure that will help farmers manage their crops down to the finest details of water and soil nutrients. Digital technologies have the potential to improve efficiency, equity, safety, nutrition, health and sustainability across the world’s food systems.”

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