Western Farm Press maintains regular columns covering tree nut and grapevine issues and this story involves both items under the capable control of Stefano Carpin, whose mission is to bring the world of technology to help farmers.
“Whenever I speak with California farmers, I ask what they need and invariably they say two things — water issues, particularly in the Central Valley because they are always on the brink of drought, and a lack of labor,” he said. “There are simply not enough workers to do everything that needs to be done and technology seems to be the path to follow to scale-up to feed more people, an estimated 70 percent increase in global food production needed over the next couple of decades.
“Farmers are risk takers who know what their weak points are and what kinds of specific technology might provide a solution to those problems,” he said. “There’s a new generation of farmers coming on board who understand the need to visit their fields with a tablet in hand because technology in the form of robotics and artificial intelligence isn’t something to be afraid of.”
Carpin, a computer scientist at the University of California, Merced, is teaming up with three other schools (University of Florida, Purdue University, and University of Pennsylvania) on a five-year, $26 million grant to form the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for the Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture, known colloquially as IoT4Ag. These four flagship engineering programs will provide convergent research to address large-scale societal challenges.
“The schools are strategically located at the four corners of the country, so we can tackle different crop seasons and manage parameters like soil moisture on a fine-grain scale," he said. "We can parcel out problems and process them in a way that will provide factual information to farmers, designing new types of sensors to retrieve data and turning it into practical information of value to growers. It’s a big picture that involves a lot of moving pieces because the endeavor is so broad.”
Carpin does double duty with another concurrent million-dollar project involving both UC Merced and UC Riverside, drilling down to specific development of a robotic pressure chamber that can autonomously pick tree or vine leaves and immediately test them on-site.
Knowing when to water crops used to involve hand-plucking leaves for an air pressure chamber to determine water content. When the acreage gets larger, testing becomes time-consuming with growers unable to test as frequently as desired to maintain optimal irrigation scheduling.
“This works for both tree nut orchards and grape vineyards and ideally it should be done twice a day, at dawn and around early afternoon,” Carpin said. “But farmers can’t go throughout their grow areas twice a day, so they tend to collect a few samples here and there and from that limited sampling information, try to make decisions for their entire field.
“We’d like to relieve the farmer of having to do this by sending a drone over the field to image process and pinpoint the areas needing closer attention, then sending out a wheeled robot to specific GPS points to pick leaves that can be measured quickly and accurately.
“We’ve spoken to growers of both crops and they have expressed interest in having such a process. We’re not yet ready for prime time on a farm until this is a proven concept, but we’ll have a prototype designed and picking leaves in Summer 2021, solving new parts of the puzzle and learning something new each time we go into the field.”
Carpin and colleagues at UC Davis and UC Berkeley have already created the RAPID system (Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery) that can travel crop rows adjusting irrigation flows needed for each plant. New research will pair the robot base with a leaf sampler/pressure chamber guided by a drone.