By Raleigh Butler

Recently, there has been a large amount of U.S. federal funding directed toward next-generation precision-agriculture initiatives. This article summarizes a few such projects based in the Midwest.

I-FARM

A new project called I-FARM was recently awarded funding by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in May 2022 under the “Farm of the Future” program. The Illinois Farming and Regenerative Management project will focus on sustainability in farming practices. I-FARM, led from the University of Illinois, is a collaborative study across the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and the Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA), which is based at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The project, funded with $3.9 million in grant money, is planned to last three years. For this very competitive program, only one project across the nation received funding.

According to the NIFA website, “The Farm of the Future Program integrates advances in precision agriculture, smart automation, resilient agricultural practices, socioeconomics, and plant and animal performance.”

The I-FARM project will focus on bettering these aspects of agriculture. Of course, as the world changes due to climate change and pollution, sustainability is an area of increasing concern. “Together, this integrated suite of solutions will lead to sustainable ways of meeting growing demand for agriculture in a changing climate,” said Co-PI and iSEE Interim Director Madhu Khanna, the Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

I-FARM was seed-funded by iSEE’s “Campus as a Living Laboratory” program and now has received the grant from USDA NIFA. During the three years, the 80-acre I-FARM test bed “will feature improved precision farming with remote sensing; new under-canopy autonomous robotic solutions for cover-crop planting, variable-rate input applications, and mechanical weeding; and artificial intelligence-enabled remote sensing for animal health prediction, nutrient quantification, and soil health.”

AIFARMS

Other recently funded projects focus on leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to benefit agricultural research and translations of this work to impact practitioners and communities. One project is AIFARMS, or “Artificial Intelligence for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability.” Led by PI Vikram Adve in the Center for Digital Agriculture at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, AIFARMS “covers autonomous farming, efficiency for livestock operations, environmental resilience, soil health, and technology adoption.”

ICICLE

The ICICLE project combines elements similar to those of both I-FARM and AIFARMS. Led by The Ohio State University (OSU), the institute’s acronym stands for “Intelligent Cyberinfrastructure with Computational Learning in the Environment.” The project will integrate AI (like AIFARMS) but focus primarily on crops and soil. It will use technology such as field sensors to help maximize agricultural production. According to an OSU article, “The institute (led by Dhabaleswar K. Panda) will build the next generation of cyberinfrastructure with a goal of making AI data and infrastructure more accessible to the larger society.”

AIIRA

AIFARMS, ICICLE, and a third project, AIIRA, were all funded under the NSF AI Institutes program, which includes a partnership with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is providing the funding for the AIIRA project. AIIRA is the “AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture,” and includes stakeholders from academia, government, and industry. Led by PI Baskar Ganapathysubramanian from Iowa State University, the project has a vision “to create new AI-driven, predictive digital twins for modeling plants, and deploy them to increase the resiliency of the nation’s agricultural systems.”

All of these projects demonstrate high interest across sectors in precision-agriculture innovations that can make the transition from academic research labs and demonstration projects to deployment at scale for agricultural production that can meet the country’s changing needs.

Get Involved

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub (MBDH) co-leads a new working group sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE SA) to understand agricultural data needs across the food supply chain.

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub to learn more, or if you’re aware of other people or projects we should profile here. We invite participation in any of our community-led Priority Areas. The MBDH has a variety of ways to get involved with our community and activities.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Iowa State University, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the national NSF Big Data Hubs community.