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Automation, artificial intelligence and robotics represent potentially monumental changes for agriculture’s future. Azlan Zahid, an assistant professor of controlled-environment agriculture engineering at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas, said he hopes his research will spearhead that evolution for urban farming.He’s working to create and implement automation and artificial intelligence into controlled-environment agriculture such as greenhouses and vertical-grow systems in warehouse settings.Companies such as Google, Amazon and SpaceX are investing in localized food-crop agriculture. SpaceX, for example, is working to develop commercial production of leafy greens. It’s also working toward mimicking growing environments on Earth for fruit and vegetable production on Mars.“The immediate goal is to cut out links of the supply chain and grow food in urban settings,” Zahid said. “Removing shipping costs and the time it takes for food to move logistically allows growers to deliver the highest quality fresh fruits and vegetables quickly to consumers.”Artificial intelligence, automation and institutional research data will play an important role in this evolution of food production capability, he said.Commercial growers for years have used hydroponic and vertical-growing systems in warehouse spaces to maximize yields per square foot. Grow lights, soil, water, nutrients and management programs provide crop-specific conditions for plants to mature to their full potential. But automation, artificial intelligence and robotics can take growing methods to the next level, Zahid said.His goal and the goal for the controlled-environment program at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Dallas is to develop systems that optimize the microclimate inside the grow space. That could involve manipulating light, carbon-dioxide levels, temperature, humidity and other factors that plants need to develop, based on feedback the system receives from the crop, down to the individual plant.A fully integrated system will work around the clock to take crops from seed to harvest. Zahid is working to create a system that monitors plants for needs and problems. It tends to the plants and harvests them when they’re ready for market.Controlled-environment agriculture adds precision to production that will reduce input costs, crop losses and post-harvest waste, he said.“Traditional production systems now require crops to be harvested and shipped to consumers in large quantities,” he said. “Much of that produce is arriving at the market too early or too late. That leads to an incredible amount of waste. Growing in urban settings allows growers to deliver produce to consumers quickly. Artificial-intelligence technology will enable growers to detect maturity and hand-select fruits and vegetables for harvest at peak quality.”One of Zahid’s projects looks to automate irrigation and control it remotely through the internet. Sensors and cameras can detect moisture levels and trigger application of specific water amounts according to individual plant needs. That can be done at the touch of a button from a mobile device.In another project he’s working to correct a seemingly simple issue for automated units to navigate in controlled environments – providing global-positioning-system connection and precision inside buildings.
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He also plans to create a system that scouts plants for symptoms of pests and disease. Robotics will be integrated into the detection system to provide precision treatments to compromised plants.Zahid’s goal is to produce a monitoring system that acts as an early detection and management tool that prevents infestations before they spread. Eventually a fully integrated precision-production system will control inputs such as fertilizer and water and the use of chemicals to control pests and disease.“Once the disease or pest is detected, the system would treat those specific plants only,” he said. “We’re building a case for how we can produce crops with the least amount of organic inputs or chemical use possible.”Daniel Leskovar, interim director of the Texas A&M AgriLife center at Dallas, said there’s increasing interest in growing systems that maximize space, resources, crop yield and quality. The potential for creating integrated systems is driving public and private investment and innovations in the technology.“It’s clear how these systems can benefit urban environments – whether we’re talking about maximizing available production space or efficiently using resources such as water,” he said. “The systems will help us fill the gaps in population growth and food availability.”Continued advancements in automation also will help agriculture producers deal with a shrinking labor force. While the system will reduce routine work and manual labor related to growing, harvesting and packaging produce, integrating automation into the food-supply chain will create jobs for increasingly tech-savvy generations, Zahid said.“The systems will still need people, but the nature of the jobs in agriculture production will change,” he said. “Human skills will be necessary to use and maintain the systems.”The current limiting factor for implementing artificial intelligence, automation and robotics into growing systems is cost, Zahid said. Systems – from cameras and sensors to programming and task-adaptive robotics – can be expensive for any commercial startup.Energy use and costs to run these facilities aren’t at sustainable levels in terms of their overall cost-benefit footprint, Leskovar said. But efficiencies are realized daily and their overall cost-benefit value to agricultural production will continue to increase as components within systems evolve and improve, he said.“We need research to adapt these systems and to address the complexity of issues they can present,” he said. “This takes input from growers, industry, scientists and, ultimately, consumers. This is tremendous technology, and we see the potential for application to complement outdoor production.”Visit dallas.tamu.edu for more information.
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