Nov 9, 2022
 UF AI center to push boundaries of ag research

The scientist called the grower with a proposition: Let me fly a drone over your grove and you’ll be able to see how many trees you have, and even the size of individual canopies.

Alex Gardinier, director of business development for Gardinier Florida Citrus, accepted. He recalls that when he received such easy-to-read metrics and maps from the flight data, he saw something else the future.

It’s a future fueled by artificial intelligence. Dr. Yiannis Ampatzidis is among those at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) that’s putting AI to use on Florida farms today, in this case by synthesizing millions of images into instantly actionable information.

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AI will create a fourth agricultural revolution, achieving huge gains in farm productivity the way the introduction of tractors, synthetic fertilizers and genetics did in previous eras. The speed and success of that revolution depends on how well land-grant university innovators like Ampatzidis, of the UF/IFAS Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, work with South Florida growers like Gardinier.

The groundwork for the revolution has been laid by more than a century of UF/IFAS establishing credibility through its citrus science. Working with a UF/IFAS faculty member comes with assurance that growers’ data will be protected. Gardinier took up Ampatzidis on his offer because he trusts him and trusts his land-grant university.

As the old saying goes, the Gardiniers trusted, but verified. They did their own ground count, and Ampatzidis turned out to be 98% accurate. The technology has the potential to save growers time and money, strengthen claims for relief in hurricane-prone areas like South Florida and drive decisions down to the level of the individual tree.

The UF/IFAS push to apply AI to agriculture includes hiring 15 faculty members with expertise in AI to work on everything from plant breeding to irrigation to packaging. It has infused AI throughout its curriculum to produce a generation of AI-literate agriculture professionals. It recently announced its intent to build a hub for its efforts to put the benefits of AI into the hands of farmers nationwide.

The Center for Applied AI in Agriculture, just south of Tampa, will bring together our expertise from around Florida to concentrate our vision for technology-driven productivity increases. The 19,000-square-foot facility will be anchored by a workshop for developing machine prototypes. Plans call for research and office space as well.

The center will be a place to help our organization of nearly 1,000 agriculture and natural resource faculty members think, tinker, pitch to investors and companies and invite you in to see and touch and critique.

The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, the local government for the UF/IFAS research center outside of Tampa, has already made a $1.5 million commitment. UF/IFAS is raising private funds. Royalties from its tops-in-the-nation plant breeding program will be reinvested in the center. And UF/IFAS is seeking a state investment to help fund construction.

Dr. Nathan Boyd of the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC), recently recognized by the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association as its researcher of the year for his work on weed management and Extension programs, and GCREC Director Jack Rechcigl have been the lead visionaries for the center. They have shared their plans widely with stakeholders across Florida and have extended their outreach nationally to find partners to accelerate the delivery of AI technology to American farms.

This center needs to happen now. Global spending on smart technologies such as AI and machine learning directed toward agriculture is projected to triple in the next three years. That represents great interest in scientific advancement and an opportunity for us to employ the land-grant-university-industry-government partnership model to make the impact we seek.

It used to be that game-changing technology was out of the reach of all but the biggest producers. AI, though, can fit the size of your phone and the size of your wallet if it’s done right.

AI is a Swiss Army knife of technology. UF/IFAS has developed a phone app that uses AI to identify nutrient deficiency and disease symptoms on citrus leaves. Our plant breeders are sifting through millions more candidates for the perfect potato, tomato or berry than they could without AI. They’re even designing “smart” packaging that will tell you which fruit you need to move first. If you can afford a smartphone, seeds and something to ship your produce in, AI applications could be well within your reach sooner than later.

Ampatzidis exemplifies the entrepreneurial thinking that’s forming around AI at UF. At the university that invented Gatorade, commercialization of innovation is serious business. It’s how we get our discovery into the hands of those who can benefit from it farmers, ag companies, land managers and others.

Ampatzidis, in part through what he learned exploring the Gardiniers’ groves, created the Agroview aerial data collection technology that is at the center of a new company he started with entrepreneur Matt Donovan, Agriculture Intelligence. Earlier this year, a UF/IFAS startup called Rapid Genomics was sold to a multinational corporation seeking to bolster its position in the agrigenomics market.

An animating idea behind the Center for Applied AI in ag is to create more of these commercial success stories. Whether it’s early access to technology, hosting corporate meetings and networking events or even helping find local office space for entrepreneurs, investors, startups and ag companies, UF/IFAS wants to partner with the private sector in the land-grant tradition.

An AI advisory board with several corporate leaders gave us real-world feedback on what they heard at a two-day AI summit we recently hosted and identified what they see as the most promising areas for development of the technology.

UF/IFAS has also whetted faculty members’ interest in AI-driven projects with a mini-grant program that attracted nearly two dozen teams of applicants. Funded projects include using AI to predict flavor preferences, analyze animal behavior, predict strawberry yield, improve plant breeding and more.

UF/IFAS’s ambition is to improve agriculture nationwide. You can help. Connect with us so we can help you identify opportunities to get in on the ground floor of the coming transformation of agriculture, or maybe inspire us to ask new questions about AI can help sustain U.S. agriculture.

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Lead photo: Kevin Wang and Dana Choi at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, release a drone. The assistant professors of agriculture and biological engineering at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, are recent hires with agtech  backgrounds. Photos: Courtesy UF.

Center photo: Jack Rechcigl (from left), director of the Center for Applied Artificial Intelligence in Agriculture at the University of Florida, J. Scott Angle, administrative leader of UF/IFAS, and Nathan Boyd, associate director of the UF Gulf Coast Research and Education Center and professor of horticulture and weed science.

 




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