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A group of undergrad students from three DPI partners explored the use of artificial intelligence in farming by contributing to a UIUC-based research project: Designing an autonomous tractor.

The students, part of DPI’s new Research Scholars program, used robot simulation software to create a digital tractor that navigates point-to-point on a map. They also took initial steps in equipping a physical tractor with sensors and other object-detection technologies so it can work in the fields autonomously.

“The overall goal was developing a planting tractor,” said Mark Lou, a computer science major at Illinois Tech. “A farmer could grid out the area the tractor is supposed to plant and the tractor would follow the path.”

Lou said this was his first experience with robotics, while engineering students on the team were new to working with simulation programs. With support from mentors and direction from UIUC agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary, the students dived confidently into their collaboration, knowing they’d be challenged.

Raj Kapadia, a computer science major at UIC, said their team embraced the inevitable “fumbling around” of a complex tech assignment. “If you’re working with a system that’s hands-on interactive, you can get an idea of what to do and how to do it,” he explained during a presentation of their work.

“One great thing about the way our team operated,” Lou said, “was we all ended up working on separate things and eventually we would all combine them.”

While Kapadia dealt with LIDAR, laser-based radar, Lou focused on the inertial measurement unit and GPS antenna. Working independently before combining efforts “allowed us to maximize our efficiency,” Lou said.
The students, including Ali Albazroun of UIUC and Hernan Razo of Illinois Tech. were part of the first group of DPI Research Scholars, a program placing junior and senior engineering, computer science, data science, or data analytics students from the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Illinois Tech into small groups to work on specific tech projects identified by DPI science teams.

The goal of the Research Scholars program is to give tech students real-world work exposure and advance the research of the science teams. It’s part of DPI’s overall mission of burnishing Illinois’ reputation as a tech hub in order to retain talented university graduates who might be tempted to head off to Silicon Valley. Chowdhary, who leads DPI’s science team focused on autonomous farming, is also co-founder of EarthSense, a start-up developing robots for use in agriculture.

Farming today still relies on sunshine and dirt, but artificial intelligence is taking agriculture in amazing directions. There are newly designed robots that pick fruit or eliminate weeds. EarthSense has developed a robot named TerraSentia that navigates autonomously through fields measuring plant height and other attributes that will help agricultural companies develop stronger crops.

Tech farming will help growers overcome labor shortages in the fields, but where it likely will make the greatest impact is increasing yields to feed future generations as Earth’s population grows.

Chowdhary’s science team asked the Research Scholars to work on the tractor to build the students’ skills and introduce them to ag tech.

“They did a phenomenal job,” said Sri Theja Vuppala, a mentor who is now head of operations at EarthSense. “They got to understand real-world constraints and gain experience that will help them be prepared for jobs after they graduate.”

Lou called agricultural technology one of the most influential fields for computer scientists.

“It tackles fundamental problems we are going to run into,” he said. “I think it’s more impactful than something like having more targeted ads, which is what CS people do a lot.”

By Michael Lev