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This is an arial photo of farmland, with an overlay of "smart" alerts signifying water levels, light levels, nutrients, etc. It is meant to convey the concept of a smart farm - one monitored by an AI to keep it healthy.

When the Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA) launched in 2018, they were looking forward to the future. Like many other areas of commerce and big tech, agriculture is a rapidly changing industry. Advancements in technology have transformed farming. A  fundamental farm task, weeding a field, can be enhanced and made more sustainable with technology. With each passing year, herbicides become less effective as weeds grow more resistant. Mechanical solutions can provide farmers tools to combat herbicide resistance with fewer chemicals protecting themselves and the environment. Additionally, as the world population grows, so does the need to feed everyone, which further speeds innovation in agriculture.

With the rapid introduction of farming advancements, a whole new field of specialists needs to be trained to meet the demands of the changing landscape in the agriculture industry. Having the right specialists is only one part of the equation. Research on these new technologies is also vitally important to keep abreast of the latest techniques in agricultural production. CDA was created to address those needs by helping agricultural producers, researchers and industries keep pace with the ways technology is transforming how to feed and support a growing global population.

In the five years since its launch, CDA has risen to meet those needs by creating adaptable, interdisciplinary curriculums, research programs, industry partnerships and training opportunities for scientists and students. In creating these programs, CDA has armed students and researchers with the knowledge and training to not only sustain the current needs of agriculture but to anticipate future needs as well.

Here’s just a small sampling of the many success stories that have come out of CDA over the past five years.

A hand holding some soil in the palm, with simple molecular diagrams overlaid. This is to convey the idea of smart farming.

Education & Research

Education and research are the cornerstones of any university. CDA is no exception. To reach their goal of creating a host of experts, CDA identified a need for a new curriculum that melded engineering and agriculture. They created a new graduate program that culminates in a Masters of Engineering in Digital Agriculture (M.Eng) degree.

This unique program has already drawn in students with a passion for digital agriculture. Christina Butsko, a current M.Eng student, spoke highly of the opportunity to enroll in the specialized M.Eng program. “When I first saw the program, I couldn’t believe my eyes – I’ve been working in digital agriculture since 2016, and I’ve long been dreaming about strengthening my engineering side with a Master’s degree. This program immediately seemed like a perfect match for me.”

Our program is designed to accommodate working professionals with busy schedules and lives.

Dr. Christina Tucker, associate director for education, CDA

Butsko went on to praise the idea of a program like M.Eng, “A systematic approach and education in digital agriculture are exactly what the field needs.The program is a great chance for me to solidify my knowledge and acquire new skills so that I could continue to apply machine learning in new and exciting ways that could make the world better.”

Students who don’t want to enroll in a full Master’s degree program can opt for a Certificate in CDA’s Certificate program. This is the first program of its kind, and what better place to start than at one of the premier universities in agriculture, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). This program is meant to build on a traditional agricultural education by incorporating more training on new technologies being developed in agriculture. “Our programs are fully online,” said Christina Tucker, associate director for education at CDA, “and the master’s degree is non-thesis. If you are not ready for a master’s degree, the professional certificate program helps you get the skills you need to advance your career with only three classes.”

“One thing that sets our program apart from others is that it includes classes to teach students about agriculture as well as classes that focus on the more technical aspects of digital ag in engineering and computer science,” Tucker explains. “Students can explore the ag applications on topics like data science, applied statistics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, robotics and more.”

CDA has also created ample opportunities for undergraduates to begin training in advanced agricultural fields through their NSF and NIFA-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The REU program continues CDA’s tradition of an interdisciplinary approach. It’s a 10-week paid, on-site position for undergraduates in agriculture, computation and biological systems. Students in the program are paired with faculty mentors and work on high-level research over the course of their 10 weeks. In addition to the unique opportunities and education this program provides, CDA has also implemented a robust equal opportunity component to admissions. Priority is given to applicants who come from historically underrepresented populations in STEM, and CDA has partnered with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), like Tuskegee University, to encourage students from these backgrounds to apply. CDA  puts a strong emphasis on developing a diverse, technically skilled workforce in digital agriculture and on supporting women and minority farmers. 

AI is important to tackle a number of challenges that cannot be addressed using conventional technologies

Vikram Adve, co-founder of CDA and director of AIFARMS

CDA is home to one of 25 National AI Institutes and one of 5 USDA-NIFA funded Institutes, The Artificial Intelligence for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management, and Sustainability (AIFARMS) Institute, led by CDA Co-director Dr. Vikram Adve. AIFARMS partnering institutes include the University of Chicago, Michigan State University,  Tuskegee University, Argonne National Laboratory, Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, and USDA-ARS, with over 29 subprojects and 40 faculty.

“AI is important to tackle a number of challenges that cannot be addressed using conventional technologies,” said Adve. “For example, low-cost autonomous systems for cover crop planting, mechanical weeding to address herbicide-resistant weeds, precision chemical spraying, 24×7 livestock monitoring, and many others. Importantly, judicious use of AI-based techniques can enable low-cost solutions for these tasks that are accessible to both small-scale and large-scale farms.”

The broad mission of AIFARMS is to develop foundational advances in AI and apply them to ensure that future agriculture is environmentally friendly, sustainable, affordable and accessible to diverse farming communities. The key research thrusts are autonomous farming, labor optimization for livestock, environmental resilience, soil health, technology adoption and education and outreach. 

One of the farming robots used by CDA, driving through crops.

The Illinois Farming and Regenerative Management (I-FARM) is also known as the Farm of the Future. I-FARM is an 80-acre agricultural testbed where commodity crops and livestock are farmed using synergistic and sustainable practices. The I-FARM testbed 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.

In 2020, CDA established the Illinois Autonomous Farm (IAF), now known as the Farm of the Future Experimental Farm. IAF saw significant growth in the year 2020-21. The IAF also added three FarmBot systems to research human-centered autonomy and serve as education and outreach tools. Additional achievements included a feasibility demonstration of under-canopy cover-crop planting and significantly improved autonomy capabilities.

I am very excited about the technologies being developed at CDA and their potential impact on food security and sustainability across the world.

Deepak Vasisht, assistant professor, Computer Science, UIUC

Since the establishment of the Center, CDA has added over 80 faculty affiliates, with expertise spanning computer science, crop science, agriculture and biological engineering, electrical and computer engineering, plant biology, advertising, veterinary medicine, agricultural and consumer economics and animal science. Students and faculty alike have embraced the new program and found much to be excited about.

“CDA presents a unique opportunity to bring diverse research areas together and focus them on problems in the digital agriculture space,” said Deepak Vasisht, Computer Science professor at UIUC. “I am very excited about the technologies being developed at CDA and their potential impact on food security and sustainability across the world. I also appreciate the opportunity to connect with industry and academics from very different research areas.”

A close up of wheat, with points of data overlaid. This is to convey the idea of smart farming.


CDA has attracted much attention from faculty and students interested in modern agriculture, with an extensive portfolio of funding opportunities. They currently have 11 active projects awarded from proposals totaling $32 million. Here are some projects in this portfolio:

  • Profitable Food Oases – 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.
  • I-FARM – an 80-acre agricultural testbed funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for three years and $3.9 million. I-FARM researchers test new synergistic, sustainable, and regenerative practices for growing commodity crops and raising livestock.
  • Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS) – a $25 million grant, of which UIUC receives $5 million, funded by the NSF that will develop the tools to listen and talk to plants and their associated organisms (i.e., microbiomes) via programmable plant systems.
  • COntext Aware LEarning for Sustainable CybEr-agriculture systems (COALESCE) – a $7 million project, of which CDA receives $2 million, funded via the National Science Foundation’s Cyber Physical Systems program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture that will utilize machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced computing help to make farming more efficient.

We are committed to building bridges across disciplines to secure the world’s food supply.

Matthew Hudson, co-director, Center for Digital Agriculture

While the funding that CDA has secured is impressive, its impact is where CDA truly shines. Through their successful funding, CDA has maintained fertile ground for researchers to explore the outer limits of what’s possible in agriculture. The research and education opportunities through the funding portfolio at CDA have created an enticing program that draws the best and the brightest from around the world to the University of Illinois. “CDA is committed to engaging all disciplines to secure the world’s food supply,” said John Reid, research professor and CDA affiliate. “Our mission and vision put us on the path to build the critical digital agriculture capabilities to support future food system sustainability.”

Here are just a few examples of how CDA’s funding has impacted research:

  • Significant improvements in autonomous navigation were applied to cover crop planting in AIFARMS. The advances have been scaled up to 100 acres through the Farm of the Future project and will now be scaled up to 10,000 acres this year through the iCOVER project.
  • Historically, agriculture hasn’t been a priority area for engineering faculty. That’s why the notable growth in the number of Computer Science and Engineering faculty working on collaborative research with ACES and Plant Biology faculty is so impressive. Vikram Adve, co-director of CDA, considers this growth one of the most important goals – and successes – of CDA.
  • Important new experimental facilities will lay a long-term foundation for future efforts, such as the Farm of the Future, including both the testbed and the research farm.

“Feeding the people of the future is a challenge that requires all of the disciplines represented in CDA and more,” said Matthew Hudson, co-director of CDA. “We are committed to building bridges across disciplines to secure the world’s food supply.

An image of cows grazing in a field, with data overlaid indicating the status of the cows (needing food, to be milked, etc.) This is meant to convey smart agriculture.


Industry partnerships can bring experiences and opportunities for students and researchers that academics alone can’t always provide. CDA has many fruitful partnerships created to synergize with the educational and research programs on offer from their center. These partnerships can put researchers and students on the path of researching real work issues and solving them, as well as bringing in much-needed funding and technology for larger research programs. CDA has partnered with EarthSense, Microsoft, Corteva, Bayer, IndigoAg, Google and AGCO. Each of these partnerships has fostered opportunities for REU students and research being done throughout CDA.

CDA will be celebrating our five-year anniversary on March 6, 2024. Save the date and keep an eye out for more information to come.

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