Smart farmers

Background

Virginia Tech to build the farm of the future

Virginia Tech is creating the SmartFarm Innovation Network, in order to build the farm of the future.

On the farm of the future, drones will fly over forests and crops to communicate with robots embedded in harvesting equipment on the ground. Sensors on livestock and in field crops and forest lands will be linked to the cloud where big data is transformed into practical information regarding precision feeding, protection, and management decisions. Plants will be biodesigned to require less water and fertilizer, and be tolerant to drought, pests, and floods while producing more food. Farmers will operate their businesses with iPads as much as tractors.

This is the farm of the future according to Virginia Tech, and the university is leading the charge to help producers maximise efficiency while sparking a new agricultural and natural resources economy.

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SmartFarm Innovation Network

The university is creating the SmartFarm Innovation Network, is made up of about 120 interconnected locations across the Commonwealth – the Blacksburg campus, 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, and 108 Virginia Cooperative Extension local unit offices – where the technologies of tomorrow are being developed, tested, and implemented today.

This network of centers will work with industry to commercialise technologies that address challenges in the areas of environment, policy, workforce development, and more.

Teams of interdisciplinary researchers will develop systems and technologies that meld agricultural and natural resources production systems with biodesign, biomaterials, big data, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. The network will connect researchers, Extension agents, producers, business, and others in a system that allows for faster exchange of information and robust data analysis.

Real-time informed decisions

Data regarding soil conditions, weather, and pest advisories will be streaming from around the state and turned into information that producers can use to make real-time informed decisions in their specific geographic region. It will also allow consumers to harness this information to source their food.

Industry partners will be able to tap into this network of innovation by using the network as an incubator for launching new products to help agriculture and natural resources remain the largest private sectors in the state.

The SmartFarm Innovation Network will be a portal into all the expertise that Virginia Tech has to offer, as well as a platform for collaboration that turns ideas into action. Undergraduate and graduate students will also have access to the network through experiential learning and research opportunities. Plans are underway to further develop a curriculum for students that will create a workforce that is prepared to work in SmartFarm-related fields.

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On the farm of the future, drones will fly over forests and crops to communicate with robots embedded in harvesting equipment on the ground. - Photo: Virginia Tech
On the farm of the future, drones will fly over forests and crops to communicate with robots embedded in harvesting equipment on the ground. - Photo: Virginia Tech

Food security for a growing global population

Industry stakeholders see value in the network through the opportunity to partner with the university and increase their own economic footprint.

“Core to Novozymes’ purpose is connecting with partners to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as food security for a growing global population,” said Chris McDowell, head of operations at Novozymes Biologicals Inc. in Salem, Virginia. “A Virginia Tech SmartFarm Innovation Network that is well-funded and has a wide scope would be an excellent resource to help us realise this purpose.”

While new funding from the state and partnerships with private businesses are still needed to realise the full potential impact of the network, there are many research and Extension projects already underway that can pave the way for further growth.

Autonomous robot takes growth measurements

Song Li, a crop and soil environmental scientist who specialises in bioinformatics, is developing an autonomous robot that moves through crops and takes growth measurements using Lidar technology. These data are then transmitted to drones flying overhead that relay information to producers who can make informed decisions about crop inputs based on the data.

At the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, in Winchester, Virginia, Professor Tony Wolf has worked with personnel at Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology to build and refine a series of vineyard site evaluation Geographical Information System tools, the current iteration of which is called GeoVine. The web-based GIS tool allows prospective grape producers to assess the climatological and physical features of a parcel of land as part of the site evaluation process.

Soybean varieties

Plant geneticist Bo Zhang is collaborating with an interdisciplinary team of geneticists, food scientists, bioinformatic scientists, horticulturalists, entomologists, plant pathologists, and agricultural economists to breed soybean varieties used for edamame that can grow in Virginia. The project will open a new market for farmers and meet the increasing U.S and export demands for edible soybeans.

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At the Eastern Virginia AREC, Superintendent Joseph Oakes is flying drones over grain crops to measure soil moisture and nutrient density in order to predict and examine the spread of a blight that impacts wheat and barley. This will more accurately depict disease resistance and the efficacy of fungicide and varietal selection, which will help producers save time and money.

Each of the 11 Agricultural Research Experiment Stations, in addition to the Urban Horticulture and Turf Grass Centers in Blacksburg, have installed on-site weather-intelligence provider WeatherSTEM systems to measure wind speed and direction, precipitation, temperature, humidity, and solar radiation. In addition, high-resolution cameras connected to the cloud record real-time imagery of current conditions and can provide time-lapse visuals of weather patterns.

Up-to-the-minute weather information

Data from the monitoring devices is transmitted to the WeatherLink Cloud where it is available for immediate viewing on the AREC WeatherSTEM websites or via a mobile app that is downloadable from the website. As a result, producers, residents, researchers, and members of the public can access up-to-the-minute weather information, including sky cam images, and receive weather alerts about such phenomena as lightning, including when it is coming and how far away it is.

To continue developing the SmartFarm Innovation Network across the state, new faculty members will be hired to join interdisciplinary teams that can address the wide range of issues important to the agriculture and natural resource communities.

“The formation of the SmartFarm Innovation Network is just the beginning,” Grant said. “We want to lead the way toward a new Virginia economy that will help our producers capitalise on the technological advances that are changing our world.”

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