Digitally rendered farming landscape

Credit: Julie Colton

By 2050, the U.S. population is estimated to grow to 400 million, and the world population to 9.1 billion, requiring a 70 percent increase in global food production.

UC Merced is one of four campuses across the country uniting to meet that challenge by harnessing the power of innovation and technology to develop precision agriculture for a sustainable future.

Led by the University of Pennsylvania, UC Merced, Purdue University and the University of Florida received a new, $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.

The overall mission of IoT4Ag is to ensure food, energy and water security by developing technology to increase crop production while minimizing the use of energy and water resources and lessening the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. Collectively, the IoT4Ag Center will also create a diverse talent pipeline consisting of K–12 and university 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 ensures the rapid translation of IoT4Ag practices and technologies into commercial products, and will also ensure that such a transformation is built with sustainable positive economic and social impact in mind.

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

The inaugural team at UC Merced’s branch of IoT4Ag features the agriculture economics Keske researches, as well as professor Stefano Carpin’s robotics and machine learning, professor Erin Hestir’s remote sensing and spatial analysis; and professor Reza Ehsani’s precision ag inventions, though Keske said the work of other faculty members and students from across the campus will be integral to IoT4Ag’s success.

The ERC are highly competitive and this is the School of Engineering’s first participation in one. Engineering Dean Mark Matsumoto emphasized that the multidisciplinary nature of the center brings UC Merced researchers nearly limitless opportunities to collaborate with established research universities that are all prestigious members of the Association of American Universities.

“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,” Matsumoto said. “I am very pleased that we are a part of this important endeavor — one that points to the emerging recognition of the school and the campus.”

Drone navigating autonomously through rows of apple trees. Drones for use in agriculture are just one area the new center will study.
Credit: Vijay Kumar

Part of the ERC mandate is to converge a wide range of academic disciplines in tackling challenges; another is to develop a diverse and inclusive workforce from across the United States. By partnering with industry and a broad community of students, faculty and professionals, the IoT4Ag Center will create an innovation ecosystem to continue these efforts into the coming decades.

The West, Midwest and East Coast are all represented in IoT4Ag, with collaboration nodes and education and research sites across the country, providing limitless opportunities for students, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders.

The IoT4Ag Center is divided into three integrated thrusts, with teams of researchers working on sensing, communication and response technologies.

IoT4Ag is housed in the School of Engineering, but the UC Merced branch, in the communication thrust, will include many others: the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), UC Water, drone and energy researchers, management of complex systems experts, socio-economists and big-data analysts, as well as the community, region and state.

“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,” Keske said. Like the rest of the team members, Keske will wear several hats as the initiative gets underway.

She’s responsible for diversity and inclusion, and said she’s looking to hold focus groups, ask farmers and commodity groups to be on the advisory board for IoT4Ag at UC Merced and visit field sites to survey farm workers, as well.

“We want everyone to have a voice in this,” Keske said.

Penn has also allocated a considerable part the ERC budget for travel and programs to train students, Keske said. The IoT4Ag plan calls for involving pre-college, community college and university students through audience-specific lessons and hands-on classroom, lab and field work; advising and mentoring; and a variety of social and professional activities to prepare a diverse workforce of the future to address the societal grand challenges of food, energy and water security.

The world’s finite land, water and energy resources demand new technologies and innovations to improve the efficiency and sustainability of all types of food production.

“We can create the tech and infrastructure that will help farmers manage their crops down to the finest details of water and soil nutrients,” Keske said. “Digital technologies have the potential to improve efficiency, equity, safety, nutrition, health and sustainability across the world’s food systems.”