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CDA To Create Profitable Food Oases In Urban Ecosystems

A robotic arm grasping a plant.

The Center for Digital Agriculture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign received a $975,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for Robotics Integrated High Tunnels (RobInHighTs) to create profitable food oases in urban ecosystems.

The project will use AI-powered robotics to automate operations for high tunnels at UIUC’s Sustainable Student Farm – leading to improved crop yields, reduced manual labor costs and higher profits. These curved metal structures are covered with greenhouse plastic and are ideal for growing plants on small urban farms. Cost-effective and adaptable, high tunnels can extend the growing season, protect against severe weather, increase crop yields and improve the quality of fruits and vegetables.

The funding is part of a larger $9.4 million investment for 12 different projects through the Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative. This initiative provides grants for research, education and Extension work to solve key problems of urban, indoor and emerging agricultural systems.

This project will investigate the feasibility of robot-aided autonomy to streamline labor intensive operations in the urban setting. Currently, there is no substitute for human labor in operations that require high levels of dexterity such as harvesting, pruning and pest management in urban high tunnels. Our group is building a unique class of hybrid soft robots with unparalleled dexterity and autonomy powered by AI. Furthermore, we are excited to be collaborating with Tuskegee University to increase robotics literacy among new-age urban and minority farmers.

Girish Krishnan, Principal Investigator and Associate Professor of Industrial & Enterprise Systems Engineering at UIUC

Led by Naveen Kumar Uppalapati, a research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the team will also evaluate the profitability of RobInHighTs and identify barriers to their use by urban and minority farmers. RobInHighTs can ultimately help transition amateur urban gardeners and growers into profitable long-term farmers, enabling efficient and fresh local food production and opening up new income streams for small and underserved communities.

“Our project on developing robots for high tunnels goes beyond just automating farming practices with an AI-powered robot. It aims to empower local food production, contributing to a sustainable and resilient food system,” said Uppalapati, one of the project’s co-investigators. “By reducing food miles, we can minimize the carbon footprint of our food supply chain and do our part in the fight against climate change.”

The NIFA funding supplements $30,000 of seed funding the project received through the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment’s 2023 Campus as a Living Laboratory program, which supports research teams that tackle interdisciplinary sustainability issues on campus or in neighboring communities. They focus on leveraging campus infrastructure and enhancing researchers’ capacity to address critical knowledge gaps and ultimately secure major federal, foundation or private funding.

“This new project would meaningfully extend our efforts in digital agriculture into robotic horticulture in high-tunnels and greenhouses,” said Girish Chowdhary, a co-investigator in the RobInHighTs effort. “This will provide great opportunities to implement advances in plant-manipulating robot AI resulting from our USDA-funded AI institute AIFARMS and complement the commodity farming systems focus in the USDA-funded Farm of the Future project at UIUC.”

“Small insects and mites are the dominant pests in high tunnels and greenhouses. These pests are difficult to monitor for and identify with populations that quickly increase causing damage before growers are even aware the pests are present,” said co-investigator Kacie Athey. “Using these robots in high tunnels for pest detection and control, we may be able to control pests before damage occurs further reducing labor costs for growers.”

“From an economic perspective, high tunnel (HT) production systems are attractive for urban farmers with limited access to capital. They are less land-intensive than open-field production and less capital-intensive than greenhouse systems,” said co-investigator Shadi Atallah. “But they are labor-intensive. Small robots can solve this problem, but only if they are low cost. We will conduct economic analyses to assess the conditions under which adoption of small robots for HT production makes economic sense for farmers. If it does, robots in HTs might provide a boost to specialty crop production in local food systems.”

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