Baskar Ganapathysubramanian of Iowa State University will lead a new, $20 million AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture that will use high-powered computers, robots, drones, field sensors and other technologies to improve agricultural production. (Photo by Christopher Gannon)

Ames, IA (July 29, 2021) – The latest artificial intelligence tools will allow researchers to develop digital twins of individual crop plants and entire farm fields, helping plant breeders improve crop varieties and farmers boost production.

The researchers behind a new artificial intelligence research institute say their work can accelerate the productivity and sustainability of agriculture at a time when the world’s population is increasing, cropland is decreasing and the climate is changing.

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture are supporting the researchers’ idea with a five-year, $20 million grant to establish an AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture (AIIRA – “eye-rah”) based at Iowa State University. The institute is one of 11 AI institutes announced July 29.

“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” said National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. Inspiring talent and ideas everywhere in this important area will lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity and position us in the vanguard of competitiveness and prosperity.”

The new institutes join seven previously announced in August 2020. They’re all part of a $360 million ($220 million this year and $140 million last year) federal effort to develop hubs for artificial intelligence research that address national needs.

“AIIRA is bringing together scientists and farmers, industry and government to adapt these technologies and encourage their adoption to more effectively transform agriculture to meet the needs of our growing and increasingly climate-challenged planet,” project leaders wrote in a summary.

Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Professor in Engineering at Iowa State, will lead the institute. It will include collaborators from Iowa State, Carnegie Mellon University, the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, George Mason University, the University of Missouri and the Iowa Soybean Association.

The institute also includes collaborators from the tech and agriculture industries, governments, commodity groups and other organizations.

“These are problems that can’t be answered by any individual,” Ganapathysubramanian said. “We need engineers, data scientists, plant scientists, social scientists, farmers, educators and entrepreneurs. AIIRA will bring all this expertise together.”

The new institute’s university base is already home to a lot of that expertise, said Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen.

“AIIRA is perfectly suited for Iowa State University as it leverages our core strengths in the plant sciences, engineering and technology and our culture of collaborative innovation,” she said. “Together with our partner institutions, Iowa State will propel agricultural advancements that will have a powerful impact on farmers, entrepreneurs, and industry in Iowa and across the country.”

Carrie Castille, director of the USDA’s NIFA, said the new institutes will “leverage the scientific power of U.S. land-grant universities” such as Iowa State. And, she said, “These innovation centers will speed our ability to meet the critical needs in the future agricultural workforce, providing equitable and fair market access, increasing nutrition security and providing tools for climate-smart agriculture.”

The big idea – “predictive digital twins”

An illustration of the AIIRA idea – headlined “Deploy the twin” – shows two research scenarios:

1.) The breeding-scale scenario pictures a single plant growing from a lump of brown soil, its five leaves a healthy green. Then there’s an arrow pointing to an identical plant, but this one is an electric blue with highlights showing digital networks. In between is a robotic arm poised to examine a plant.

2.) The production-scale scenario pictures neat rows of green plants on a striped, brown field. The corresponding digital twin is all in shades of blue. In between flies a drone sending data between the real field and the digital one.

The scenarios illustrate how AIIRA researchers will continuously feed real-time data from sensors in the biological plants and fields – including weather data, soil measurements of water and nitrogen, soil and topography maps, ground and drone-based imaging and satellite information – to the predictive digital twins.

In addition, the digital twins will be loaded with the latest understanding of plant growth and development.

“This will be a functional, virtual representation of a real system,” said Soumik Sarkar, the institute’s associate director, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a Walter W. Wilson Faculty Fellow in Engineering at Iowa State. “With it, we can run various what-if scenarios and make decisions in the virtual world, and when we’re happy with the results, we can apply those decisions in the real world.”

And because every year of biological data can create hundreds of reality-based simulations, a project summary says:

  • Scientists will gain insights into plant genetics and physiology while more efficiently breeding plants that can adapt to changing environments and emerging diseases and pests.
  • Farmers will optimize planting decisions and applications of fertilizer, irrigation and pesticides to maximize profit while minimizing environmental impacts.
  • Governments will identify which crops and practices are best suited on regional and national scales, set policies, and undertake regional and national pest surveillance.
  • Ag companies will create more effective precision management products and produce climate-resilient crop varieties.
  • And, rural entrepreneurs will be spurred by artificial intelligence-fueled innovations and economic development.

Investments that grow

Robots and drones collect data, tend to plants.

Some of these applications of artificial intelligence and digital twins have started in the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries, Sarkar said.

“The big jump is bringing this to the natural or biological world,” he said.

It’s a jump that, over time, could pay big dividends.

“This is a little like an investment portfolio,” said Patrick Schnable, an Iowa State Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Iowa Corn Promotion Board Endowed Chair in Genetics, the Baker Scholar of Agricultural Entrepreneurship and director of Iowa State’s Plant Sciences Institute.

“When you invest in stocks and bonds, you’re trying to come up with the best investment mix based on personalized financial information,” he said. “With this project, by planting crops virtually without having consequences in the real world, you can find the right mix of plant varieties and management practices to produce the best crops.”

The AI technology hasn’t been around to make that a possibility for agriculture, said Arti Singh, an Iowa State assistant professor of agronomy. Improvements in plant, soil and weather sensors, along with automated devices such as robots and drones now make it possible to collect real-time data and transmit enough of it to build useful digital twins capable of predicting agricultural production processes.

The same goes for predicting the performance of new crop varieties.

“How can you breed for the environment or stressors that will prevail in 2050?” asked Asheesh (Danny) Singh, a professor of agronomy and the Bayer Chair in Soybean Breeding at Iowa State. “AIIRA can help us optimize plants with the right combinations of roots, stems, leaves and reproduction.”

The institute will also educate students, scientists, business people and farmers to understand and use these new digital tools to help them make better decisions. The institute, its leaders wrote, “is committed to speeding the progress, productivity and sustainability of today’s agriculture by making the power of artificial intelligence available to all.”

Washington State University to lead national AI research institute for agriculture

WSU post-doctoral fellow Abhilash Chandel explains to an AgAID Institute team how the drone’s sensing technology collects multispectral and thermal imagery data from a “smart farm” in Yakima County.

Ananth Kalyanaraman

Pullman, WA (July 29, 2021) - With a new $20 million federal grant, Washington State University will lead a multi-institutional research institute to develop artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to tackle some of agriculture’s biggest challenges related to labor, water, weather and climate change.

The new institute is one of 11 launched by the National Science Foundation and among two funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 2021. It’s called the AgAID Institute, which is short for USDA-NIFA Institute for Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support.

While traditional AI development involves scientists making tools and delivering them to end-users, the AgAID Institute will involve the people who will use the AI solutions—from farmers and workers to policy makers—in their development, said Ananth Kalyanaraman, a WSU computer science professor and the lead principal investigator for the Institute.

“People are very much part of the agricultural ecosystem. It’s not just plants growing. Humans manipulate crops on a daily basis and make complex decisions, such as how to allocate water or mitigate the effects of an incoming storm,” said Kalyanaraman, who also holds the Boeing Chair in WSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We aim to partner human knowledge with AI tools in a way that amplifies the end outcomes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The AgAID Institute will be a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort involving faculty and scientists with expertise on a diverse range of areas in computer science, agriculture and agricultural outreach.

In addition to WSU, the Institute members include Oregon State University; University of California, Merced; University of Virginia; Carnegie Mellon University; Heritage University; Wenatchee Valley College; and Kansas State University. Private sector partners include IBM Research and the start-up

The AgAID Institute will take an “adopt-adapt-amplify” approach, Kalyanaraman said. This means first the Institute will design AI solutions in partnership with the people who use the tools, so they are practical and more likely to be adopted. The researchers will also work to make solutions that can adapt to changing environments and that amplify productivity by combining human skills and machine capabilities to be more effective than either would be alone. For instance, pruning trees is a highly skilled task, but a beginner-level worker could benefit from an AI tool that provides expert guidance to help decide which is the best branch to prune. The task is done better, and the worker starts to learn from the feedback, and with a shortage of skilled labor, AI can benefit both the orchard and the worker, said Kalyanaraman.

“It’s a partnership. AI can help us basically bridge the divide between high-skilled and low-skilled workers,” he said.

Educating the workforce at all levels is central to the AgAID Institute not just to encourage AI adoption but as a matter of equity, according to the Institute leaders. The Institute plans multiple education programs from K-12 through higher education and worker training. The goal is to raise AI skill levels and open new career paths, which can improve pay and quality of life for agricultural workers. It can also attract more people to agriculture and computing professions.

The AgAID Institute will undertake several challenging test cases involving specialty crops, many of which grow in the Western United States, such as apples, cherries, mint and almonds. These crops encompass several major challenges: they require intensive labor and irrigation. They are also vulnerable to weather events and climate change. Specialty crops account for 87% of the U.S. agricultural workforce, and about 40% of these crops are perennial, requiring long-term management and resource planning.

The difficult challenges posed by these cases would mean AgAID Institute’s solutions would be rigorously tested before being transferred to other regions in the country, said Kalyanaraman.

“We know that AI has a serious potential to make groundbreaking discoveries and transform our decision-making capabilities in a data-informed way, but the technology needs to be developed in a very careful manner,” he said.

This award is part of a significant investment by the federal agencies in state of Washington AI leadership, noted U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. Two of the 11 funded institutes will be headed by universities in the state: in addition to the WSU-led AgAID Institute, the University of Washington will be leading the NSF AI Institute for Dynamic Systems.

“The state of Washington is already a leader in artificial intelligence,” said Cantwell. “From the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab that studies the grand challenges around artificial intelligence to Washington State University’s work in precision agriculture, we are more than ready for these two grants to help us understand more artificial intelligence applications. The UW will work in the area of complex systems to improve fields like manufacturing and WSU will work on improvements in farming.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers expressed her support for the new AgAID Institute.

“Washington State University has long been a leader in agriculture, innovation and technology,” said McMorris Rodgers. “I was proud to be a part of the conversation at the university’s Agriculture AI Summit in October 2020 and am pleased to see that WSU received designation as the USDA-NIFA Institute for Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support today. This institute, also known as AgAID, will integrate AI methods into agriculture operations for prediction, decision support and robotics-enabled agriculture to address the complex agricultural challenges facing Eastern Washington and the nation. I look forward to seeing the innovative work that will come out of this Institute to support our state’s agricultural industries.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher part of multi-university effort to improve ag decision-making

Sierra Conway, an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, collects RNA from a set of diverse corn varieties that her research team is growing and studying at the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture research fields in Lincoln. Conway is part of James Schnable’s research group at Nebraska, which is partnering with Iowa State University and six other institutions to launch the AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture. (Craig Chandler | University Communication)

Lincoln, NE (July 29, 2021) - The use of “digital twins,” virtual copies of physical objects and operations, is gaining steam across a wide range of industries. Updated constantly with real-time data, these virtual mirrors allow engineers to keep an eye on and predict traffic flow, retailers to optimize supply chains and railway operators to spot wear and tear on tracks. Researchers are even working toward digital twins of the human heart, which would let doctors diagnose, treat and monitor patients from afar.

Until now, the technology had not been widely employed in agriculture, even as the world races to secure a sustainable food supply for a population on track to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Today, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced a five-year, $20 million grant to establish the AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture, or AIIRA. It’s part of a $200 million federal effort to develop artificial intelligence hubs that address a variety of national needs.

A collaboration of eight institutions — including the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and led by Iowa State University — is launching the institute with the aim of deploying digital twins, powered by advances in artificial intelligence, throughout the agricultural space.

“In the tradition of USDA-NIFA investments, these new institutes leverage the scientific power of U.S. land-grant universities informed by close partnerships with farmers, producers, educators and innovators to provide sustainable crop production solutions and address these pressing societal challenges,” said Carrie Castille, USDA-NIFA director. “These innovation centers will speed our ability to meet the critical needs in the future agricultural workforce, providing equitable and fair market access, increasing nutrition security and providing tools for climate-smart agriculture.”

AIIRA was one of 11 NSF-led AI institutes announced July 29, which join seven that were launched in August 2020.

The AIIRA research team, which includes Husker plant geneticist James Schnable, believes the technology may help ramp up food production by enabling farmers to increase yields and plant breeders to strategically improve varieties. Schnable brings to the project Nebraska’s diverse geography, climate and soil — variations that are key to understanding how plants behave under different circumstances, including accelerating climate change and decreasing available cropland.

He will tap into the university’s Research and Extension Centers, which span the state from a site just outside of Lincoln to the Panhandle Research and Extension Center — located 400 miles to the west, at 2,700 feet higher in elevation and with only half of Lincoln’s precipitation — to grow, test and genetically analyze various corn and sorghum varieties during the project.

“In Nebraska, we’re able to evaluate crops under a wide range of different stressful conditions,” said Schnable, associate professor and the Charles O. Gardner Professor of Agronomy. “Only a few states have the geography to make that possible, and of those, few have made the necessary investments in facilities and people. It’s a really unique asset we have here, and it’s a big part of what I’m able to leverage to get big consortiums interested in doing research in Nebraska.”

The collaboration also includes New York University, the University of Arizona, George Mason University, the University of Missouri, the Iowa Soybean Association and Carnegie Mellon University, home to the world-class AI expertise that will power development of the digital twins. The institute also includes partners from the tech and agriculture industries, governments, commodity groups and other organizations.

To bring digital twinning to agriculture, the researchers are capitalizing on increasingly sophisticated plant, soil and weather sensors and automated devices such as drones and robots. These technologies transmit real-time data — such as weather information, water and nitrogen measurements, and soil and topography maps — to predictive digital twins, which also incorporate data reflecting the latest understanding of plant growth and development. The team will twin both individual plants and entire farm fields.

Digital twins overcome real-world constraints on the number of experiments researchers can run on crops in the real world, where a breeder might evaluate 2,000 potential new varieties in a single environment, or an agronomist might test five levels of fertilizer application on 10 hybrids at a dozen locations, each with their own unique combination of weather and soil properties. Digital twinning circumvents that, enabling researchers and producers to simulate endless what-if scenarios and apply their findings to on-the-ground decision making.

“Creating a digital twin means building a model of how plants perceive and respond to their environment,” Schnable said. “Once we have that, we can run hundreds of thousands of different simulations where we put the digital twin of an individual corn plant or a whole field through different weather or agronomic practices, or make specific changes to the plant we know is possible to achieve through breeding. Running all these simulations lets us prioritize which combinations of plant genetics and farm management practices are likely to give the best outcomes for farmers in specific environments.”

For farmers, this could eventually translate into a decision support tool that provides actionable information. Today, farmers make decisions about which hybrid to plant, and the timing and amount of irrigation and fertilizer, based on their knowledge of the weather, their farm’s soil and previous experiences. But for farmers who may have only 40 growing seasons in their careers, big changes can be risky. Digital twins would let them test out a wider range of options on a computer, helping farmers maximize profit and minimize environmental impact.

For Nebraska, participating in the institute is an opportunity to strengthen its position as a national leader in agricultural resilience. Collaborating with global experts in AI will advance the university’s extensive work in this area and underscores Nebraska’s commitment to its Grand Challenges, which include climate resilience and sustainable food and water security.

“We’re getting to work with and build new connections with some of the world leaders in AI,” Schnable said. “Just in the process of organizing the team and writing the proposal, I’m already seeing folks develop a new excitement about the research questions and problems of agriculture and stress biology.”