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Cornell researchers use robots on the ground and drones in the air to monitor the quality and growth of crops at the Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, New York.

Digital ag is Cornell’s newest radical collaboration initiative

This semester, master’s students in computer science professor Ken Birman’s cloud computing course are tackling challenges specific to digital agriculture – the use of technology and data systems to optimize all aspects of food production.

For example: Through advanced sensor technology and big data, how can you efficiently monitor millions of acres of grapes, almonds and apples for water stress and other vital signs? What would the logistics and cost be? And on a dairy farm with 1,000 cows outfitted with networked sensors, can cow health be predicted before illness impacts wellness and productivity?

Digital agriculture at Cornell – which already has been enhancing curricula such as Birman’s course, cross-college research projects and partnerships with industry – has just been seeded for robust additional growth.

Cornell impacting New York State

The Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) was created last year to marshal Cornell’s multidisciplinary strengths, connecting researchers with practitioners to tackle global food system challenges. The self-assembled faculty initiative has been dubbed the newest interdisciplinary, universitywide effort under Provost Michael Kotlikoff’s Radical Collaboration Drives Discovery initiative.

The addition of digital agriculture brings the total number of strategic discipline priority areas to eight and will give the initiative enhanced resources to seed efforts to bring innovative, interdisciplinary faculty teams together, develop and apply digital innovations in agriculture that improve sustainability, profitability, resiliency and efficiency of the world’s food systems, and seek out and build mutually beneficial private-public partnerships to collaborate with Cornell researchers.

Additionally, Trustee Emeritus Stephen Ashley ’62, MBA ’64, has given a $2.5 million gift establishing a research innovation fund for digital agriculture. It will support CIDA’s cross-college interdisciplinary research teams and, together with funding by colleges and the university, will bolster the task force’s reach.

“Digital agriculture continues to blossom rapidly across academic and research fields, and there is no university as uniquely positioned as Cornell to help meet the world’s food system needs,” said Kotlikoff. “The faculty have led this initiative from the beginning, and it is their efforts, expertise and momentum that has made the timing perfect to add this task force to our collaborations umbrella.”

The initiative task force is led by Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics and director of CIDA. McCouch will share the task force directorship duties on a rotating basis with CIDA’s two associate directors – Abe Stroock ’95, the William C. Hooey Director and Gordon L. Dibble ’50 Professor in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science in the Faculty of Computing and Information Science, and the initiative draws faculty from agriculture and life sciences, engineering, computing and information science, and veterinary medicine.

A TerraSentia robot, which is being trained to perform remote diagnostics on individual corn plants, moves between rows of corn at Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, New York.

They are joined on the task force by six researchers, representing electrical and computer engineering, natural resources, the School of Integrative Plant Science, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and population medicine and diagnostic sciences.

This multidisciplinary makeup embodies CIDA’s flexible, integrated and multiscaled vision that aims to transform agriculture – through big data, new tools for sensing, and computational technologies – in a holistic and systems analytics framework.

Expanding the definition of agriculture

McCouch said that CIDA was formed with the intent of expanding the definition of agriculture.

“It’s about how you go from production all the way to consumption,” she said. “It’s how you produce food and get it to the people who need it and how you improve the quality and safety of that food. It’s about early detection of pests and diseases and targeted use of fertilizer and water to enhance the environmental sustainability of production, minimizing food waste – all of these things have the potential to restructure the way we think about the agri-food system as a whole.”

Stroock has long been drawn to engineering that interfaces with plant life; several years ago he developed a synthetic plant to study how water is managed in plant biology and, with Alan Lakso, professor emeritus of horticulture, developed a microsensor that could be embedded in a plant to measure drought stress. This maturing technology, combined with connectivity and cloud computing, could now be used in large numbers to manage entire crops.

“Some of the basic science and engineering has been done, and now there’s data and opportunities for applications. It’s becoming less academic and more real-world,” Stroock said.

Weatherspoon has worked with Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Mike Gore, Ph.D. ’09, associate professor of molecular breeding and genetics, and a task force member, on developing neural networks and artificial intelligence that rapidly can process high-definition drone photography to identify disease on the leaves of plants. Weatherspoon also is working with colleagues on farm networks that can aggregate images and sensor readings to perform analytics, and is partnering with Microsoft on its FarmBeats project to advance data-driven farming.

“This is the right time,” Weatherspoon said of the task force creation. “We have more data than ever. We have the ability to communicate more easily than ever. And that next ripe area is agriculture.”

“We’re aiming to hire people under the digital agriculture umbrella who have an interest in contributing to the larger initiative,” McCouch said, “in engineering, in computer and information science, in the vet college, in CALS, in business, and each of them could come in with a different understanding of what the frontiers are in their field.”

The multiple strategic areas within the provost’s task forces overlap, McCouch said. “I think that’s on purpose, because these are very broad umbrellas, and they’re usually part of rapidly evolving frontiers of science. So you never know where that frontier will take you.”

The palpable excitement among the task force members “is around the idea that the world is ready for rethinking, redesigning and reformulating the entire agri-food system, and that Cornell is one of the best places in the whole world to take that on,” McCouch said. “And we want to make sure we’re training our students to go out and make a difference and be leaders in that change.”

Mike Gore, Ph.D. '09, and his lab conduct research using remote sensing technology to explore the genetic basis of trait variation in crops such as corn, oat and cassava.

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Lindsey Hadlock