The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and National Science Foundation has announced the availability of $5 million for research through the Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) Joint Competitive Grant program. The program aims to coordinate the work of these federal agencies to improve the science behind increasingly complex CPS—the way the physical world connects to information and communication technologies. “NIFA is interested in new approaches for analyzing data that can extract actionable information and control machines or other devices in an agricultural setting,” says Steven J. Thomson, PhD, national program leader, USDA, NIFA. “These approaches can also augment human capabilities.”
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Among the six previous grant recipients are a University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture project to develop and test biosensing to detect disease in confined dairy herds. Peter Krawczel, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Animal Science, University of Tennessee, explains that for the project cows will have a radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader placed in their ear, which will record their activity. “We want to look at how cows interact with their environment and herd mates and see, if a shift occurs, if the cow is ill,” he says. “The goal is to determine if a cow is diagnosed with disease, such as mastitis or lameness, if her activity pattern changed. For example, she may have altered her meal pattern or isolated herself socially. If that’s proven to be true, cows could be monitored for changes in activity and detected and treated for disease earlier. I would expect a segment of livestock producers would embrace this technology if it’s proven successful.”
Another recipient was an Iowa State University project that combines data from unmanned ground and aerial vehicles and satellites with sophisticated analytics for early detection and mitigation of row crop diseases. “These technologies have existed for a while, but resolutions for miniaturized cameras were not high enough to be useful,” Dr. Thomson says. “But in recent years, resolutions have increased dramatically. Unmanned aerial systems fitted with cameras can now detect intrusions of animals in the field. Trained food safety experts can determine the impact of intrusions.”
Regarding what the future holds for how smart technologies can improve food safety, Dr. Thomson envisions robotics in the field (either ground-based robots or unmanned aerial systems) to perform targeted plant and soil sampling in order to make decisions regarding disease and nutrient management as well as irrigation needs.
But in order to make good use of sophisticated sensor systems, it’s imperative that data can be processed in appropriate and effective ways. “Data driven analytical tools throughout the food supply chain are a very important component of the CPS program,” says Dr. Thomson, who is pleased to report that advancements are being made in this area.
Adds Sonny Ramaswamy, director at NIFA, “We’ll be able to make smarter decisions that can promote efficient food production, reduce food waste, and increase food safety. Investments in CPS will improve efficiencies across the agricultural industry.” Examples of cyber-physical systems already in use or being tested include self-driving tractors and cars, remote patient monitoring apps, and smart irrigation scheduling.