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USDA NIFA Awards U of I Research $3.9M for I-FARM

A robotic arm grasping a plant.

Today the U.S Department of Agriculture awarded $3.9M to the Center for Digital Agriculture at NCSA and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment for I-FARM, the Illinois Farming and Regenerative Management Testbed. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture selected the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as the premiere pioneering site for their Farm of the Future initiative.

We will accelerate the creation, maturation and adoption of new management technologies that are fundamentally more sustainable, profitable, affordable and scale-neutral. The new practices will be enabled by maturing digital agriculture technologies developed in wide-ranging research efforts at the University of Illinois.

Girish Chowdhary, I-FARM PI, associate professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering and Computer Science.

Funded by NIFA, this three-year project seeks to evaluate and enhance digital agriculture technologies that fundamentally improve agricultural sustainability and farmer profitability.

CDA Co-Director and I-FARM Co-Investigator Vikram Adve, the Donald B.Gillies Professor of Computer Science, shares that the proposal process was highly competitive and the only one awarded across the nation. Adve emphasizes that “this grant is a major endorsement of our growing strengths in digital ag.”

The I-FARM team will partner with Olga Bolden-Tiller, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences and Professor of Animal Sciences, and Gregory Bernard, Assistant Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, at Tuskegee University to develop an 80-acre testbed that focuses on:

  • Integrating remote sensing and ground sensors in precision farming
  • Incorporating under-canopy agricultural robots to enable sustainable management options, such as cover-crop planting and mechanical weeding
  • Creating complete solutions for rural internet connectivity and Edge computing
  • Integrating animal health prediction methods
  • Ensuring accessibility of technology

“I-FARM brings together farmers, researchers, and industry towards creating technologies for the farm and farmers of the future. We are proud to work closely with our partners at Tuskegee University to ensure that our technologies ensure equitable and fair access to farm-derived income to minorities and small-holder farmers,” says Chowdhary.

This project unites multidisciplinary research efforts and expertise to create a testbed where crops and livestock are farmed synergistically and sustainably. I-FARM will help bring promising technologies to farmers quicker.

“Our goal is to accelerate the pace of agricultural technologies that can help regenerate our land and curb excess chemical usage,” says Chowdhary. “Working closely with Tuskegee, I-FARM will ensure that the developed technologies are accessible. We will ensure this by advancing technologies powering agricultural robots that are appropriately sized and priced for small farms and equipped with sensors and actuators to do dexterous tasks.”

I-FARM will also engage with farmers through integrated extension activities. These outreach efforts will help farmers understand digital technology options available to them and identify barriers to adoption. Understanding these adoption barriers will enable the ag industry to provide solutions that will address these challenges.

Other Illinois project members and NCSA faculty affiliates include Co-PI and Co-Investigators Kaiyu Guan, associate professor of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences and founding director of the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center; Isabella Condotta, assistant professor of Animal Sciences; Deepak Vashist, assistant professor of Computer Science; Shadi Attallah, associate professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics; Hamze Dokoohaki, assistant professor of Crop Sciences; Salah Issa, assistant professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering; Andrew Margenot, assistant professor of Crop Sciences; DoKyoung Lee, professor of Crop Sciences; and Bin Peng, senior research scientist at iSEE and NCSA.

Read more about I-FARM in iSEE’s press release and NIFA’s official announcement.

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