VT Research Bridges Gap Between Technology and Farmers In The Field

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Hovering between the clouds and the cows, Wyatt Bunn keeps a stealthy eye on his family’s cattle.

“When I fly by, they don’t notice it, but if I get down too low, they do,” said the third-generation Pulaski County farmer as he guided a tiny quadcopter drone from hundreds of yards away.

“It’s just fun,” said the 10-year-old pilot.

Using a tablet connected to the drone’s remote control, Wyatt surveys the herd, checking for injured or lost animals.

“Wyatt is able to do before school what usually takes us an hour to do,” said Doug Bunn, Wyatt’s grandfather. “He’ll take the drone and check all the cattle. He’ll do it in about 10 minutes, and he can even zoom in on them enough to read the ear tag.”

Keeping an eye from the sky on 600-plus cattle is just one example of how the Bunn family uses advanced technology to manage their 1,000-acre farming operation in Dublin, Virginia.

Although tapping into the technology trend isn’t a new concept for individuals and families in the agriculture industry, the opportunities for connectivity from the field directly to the research lab may lead to game-changing innovations for growers around the globe and right here in Virginia.

According to the Bunns, deciding to add some sophisticated digital devices to the more traditional tools of their trade grew out of their relationship with the Pulaski County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE).

“The Extension service lets us know about lots of things that we really don’t know about,” Doug Bunn said. “When I first got into farming, cabs on tractors and air conditioning were the big things, and we didn’t have that. Now, you know, they’re coming out with drones that I think will eventually have sprayers on them and will go out and identify a weed on their own.”

Rooted in the cause

Bridging the gap between the latest research-based technology and the farmers in the fields fueled the mission of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical Institute, today’s Virginia Tech, when it launched in 1872. Early on, that meant educating growers on the science of planting and pesticides and teaching producers about higher quality animal feeds and improved techniques for meat preservation. The addition of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station in 1886 and then VCE in 1914, bolstered these efforts.

In the 21st century, however, advancing the mission of the land-grant university involves tapping into innovations and technologies that improve sustainability, promote health and safety, and meet the food needs for a complex, rapidly changing population.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates the need for a 70-percent worldwide increase in crop production by 2050 on only about a 5 percent increase in farmable land. The impending need calls for intensifying crop production and increasing stewardship of natural resources and leaning on technology to produce those results.

Robin White talks about AgrAbility with students enrolled in a Virginia Governor’s School summer program. (Photo by Zeke Barlow)

On the local farm, that translates to providing opportunities to expand from cows and plows to include drones, global positioning systems (GPS), and wearable exoskeletons. It means embracing tools that capture big data and leaning on skilled researchers to translate and communicate information across the commonwealth in real time. It means working hand-in-hand with producers of all levels to discover practical applications for innovations and research that will allow farmers to work smarter, longer, and with a better quality of life.

And it means developing the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

With about 120 interconnected locations that reach every corner of the state, the Virginia Tech-led SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide faster access to data; allow for real-time, geographically specific decision-making; and streamline statewide collaboration. The platform will allow researchers and industry leaders to weave together what happens in the fields and forests with emerging technologies in areas that range from biodesign and artificial intelligence (AI) to cybersecurity. And it provides a fertile ground for applying the resulting advancements from Virginia Tech’s growth in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area and the historic launch of the Innovation Campus, as well as the revolutionary biomedical work of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.

“For years we have had in place an extensive network of people and programs around the commonwealth between our ARECs [Agricultural Research and Extension Centers], our local Extension offices, and the university,” said Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The SmartFarm Innovation Network will collaboratively streamline and expedite our research, workforce development, and outreach in a way that will boost our largest industries—agriculture and forestry—and position them as global leaders in solving not only today’s most pressing issues, but the issues of tomorrow as well.”

Once fully realized, the SmartFarm Innovation Network will bolster Virginia Tech’s impact across the commonwealth, said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands during his State of the University address in September. Moving Virginia Tech’s impact forward regionally, nationally, and globally is one of four priorities set forth in the university’s newly approved strategic plan: The Virginia Tech Difference: Advancing Beyond Boundaries.

The SmartFarm Innovation Network is expected to push limits and challenge the status quo in order to leverage Virginia Tech’s strengths in ways that empower the commonwealth’s agricultural industries and farming communities to anticipate the needs of tomorrow and solve them today.

“When you think about what’s happening around the world with climate change, urbanization, and related issues, you wonder, ‘How do we help our producers evolve to address these issues?’” Grant said. “By working together, we’re going to find ways to prepare people to deal with these emerging problems, while at the same time using the network as a resource for preparing students to go out into the real world and become global leaders in solving those problems.”

Growing opportunities

Agriculture and forestry combine to make up what is by far Virginia’s largest industry, recording a joint annual economic impact of more than $91 billion and sustaining more than 440,000 jobs, according to 2017-18 figures from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In April 2018, stakeholders from across the commonwealth gathered at the Virginia Agriculture and Natural Resource Summit to discuss the challenges facing Virginia’s agricultural industry and workforce. During the two-day event, participants enthusiastically endorsed a plan that would develop an infrastructure to access Virginia Tech’s resources and expertise, as well as provide a platform for real-world utilization of data analytics and research findings. By streamlining the connections and programing on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, as well as the 11 strategically located ARECs and the extensive VCE network, the SmartFarm Innovation Network will create a statewide incubator for data collection and meaningful application.

WeatherSTEM Monitoring stationWeatherSTEM monitoring station.

Access to such information is important for companies like Novozymes Biological Inc. in Salem, Virginia, which is working to develop microorganisms that will optimize a crop’s ability to absorb nutrients, increasing both productivity and sustainability.

“This is really an application of big data and data science agriculture at home, just like we are developing in other parts of the world,” said Chris McDowell ’92, head of operations for Novozymes. “The SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide the infrastructure and methodologies to run really meaningful experiments, get even more data, and discover how to leverage it to best improve agriculture.”

In addition to engaging researchers, the network will tap into the university’s growing population of students who are skilled in global system sciences, AI, and data analytics. This strategy encourages diversity of perspective and transfers fresh ideas to the network while simultaneously equipping students with the information-gathering and problem-solving skills required by real-world employers.

One such project, officially announced in June, connects the Virginia Experiment Station with weather-intelligence provider WeatherSTEM. The partnership, which includes each of the ARECs as well as the Urban Horticulture and Turf Grass Centers in Blacksburg, will produce real-time, geographically pinpointed forecasts. Automatically uploaded to the cloud, the information will be accessible both online and via a mobile app. This will provide producers, residents, researchers, and members of the public with up-to-the-minute weather information.

WeatherSTEM phoneWeatherSTEM phone

“For researchers who are involved in analyzing weather conditions and patterns through computer-simulated modeling, retrieving data from multiple sources in various locations across the state is critical to understanding those patterns,” said Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean for research and graduate studies in CALS.

Mostaghimi, who also serves as the director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, is excited to collaborate with Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment in the initiative. The WeatherSTEM site is expected to generate opportunities for students to assist with the installation and calibration of sensors and other related equipment, among other learning experiences. It’s the type of experiential opportunity that mutually benefits students looking to enter the workforce and employers seeking qualified candidates to fill positions.

Cultivating research

Across the SmartFarm Innovation Network, many Virginia Tech researchers are excited about the potential impact of having their work elevated and expanded across the state.

“It’s the type of program that’s kind of limitless,” said Robin White, an assistant professor whose work at Virginia Tech has focused on the cross section of data and animal science for the past five years.

Working at the Middleburg AREC in collaboration with colleagues from the College of Engineering, White plans to merge data from radio-transmitting halters on horses and cattle with information from sensors planted in the animals’ pastures. This sensor network collects authentic data, without any type of human or external interference. Transmitted to the cloud they can be accessed for animal behavior studies and to analyze the impact of herds on the environment in real time.

Robin White and friendRobin White and friend

“This will help us better understand how livestock interact with their broader ecosystem,” said White, adding that the information would help identify production practices that are mutually beneficial to producers, animals, and the environment.

Once fully operational, the SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide a platform for expanding such research to all ARECs. This will boost data collection, add the diversity of regional landscapes to the equations, and accelerate the timetable for turning research into working solutions for Virginia producers.

At the Eastern Virginia AREC in Warsaw, Virginia, Superintendent Joseph Oakes has already determined some early benefits of the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

The enhanced real-time, site-specific forecasting and monitoring resulting from the collaboration with WeatherSTEM have increased the efficiency of certain projects, such as Oakes’ research on the use of nitrogen as a fertilizer to maximize wheat and barley production.

“It gives you the ability to know what’s going on at your station and helps determine things like growing degree days, when the crops will emerge, and how fast they will grow,” Oakes said.

harness monitor transmitterHalter sensor

Using drones, Oakes is able, in minutes, to inspect large sections of wheat and barley in the field that would take hours to observe on foot. A multispectral sensor on the drones, which collects visible and nonvisible wavelengths of light, is able to pinpoint specific nitrogen needs for a particular area of growth. Nitrogen is commonly considered to be one most important components for supporting plant growth.

“In the past, a person would have to go out on foot and count the tillers to determine how much biomass was present,” Oakes said. “You would count a square foot and create an estimate for the rest of the field.”

Surveying the entire field produces more accurate readings and results in a more environmentally and economically friendly use of nitrogen, with the added benefit of identifying pests that might otherwise go undetected.

“The sensors pick up bands from infrared spectrum, so they have the potential to recognize a disease before it’s visible to the human eye,” Oakes said.

Like White’s work, this project has the potential to be quickly disseminated through the AREC and VCE branches of the SmartFarm network. And while the heightened connection will benefit Virginia farmers, the expedited feedback from growers and producers will aid researchers concurrently.

“In a lot of ways, the technology then becomes a new tool for our Extension agents to do a better job of serving the stakeholders of the commonwealth, but this integration with stakeholders also helps our research,” White said. “We can design the perfect sensor tool, but if it does something unexpected, like scare the animal, it’s not going to work in real life.”

Collecting such real-life feedback is a primary charge of Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the AgrAbility Virginia program. For the past 17 years, Virginia Tech has housed the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is a partnership program with Eastersseals UCP to bring assistive technology and culturally appropriate education to farmers who identify with an injury, illness, or disability.

“My part of the work is to assess needs, provide education and assistive technology resources, offer trainings, and build organizational capacity across the rural rehabilitation network to ensure our farmers can farm safely and productively with a sense of hope,” Niewolny said. “We have good ideas that involve the use of assistive technologies, but getting the farmers involved in the design and assessment of the technology is critically important.”

Consider Unionville, Virginia, farmer Ron Burleson ’81, who suffered a debilitating stroke while in his mid-50s. Teaming with the Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics and the university, AgrAbility helped equip Burleson with an all-terrain wheelchair that enables him to navigate his field and greenhouse.

Ron BurlesonRon Burleson

Such devices are increasingly needed, as the average age of those working full-time in agriculture continues to rise. The most recent USDA census reported the average age of American farmers to be just over 59 years old, an increase of nearly 10 years over the 1978 census. But work to meet the need is for naught if the assistive technology is either too expensive or too cumbersome for farmers to actually use.

Recently, two National Science Foundation grants were awarded to Virginia Tech researchers to advance robotics and technology support for Virginia’s agricultural workers. AgrAbility is involved with both projects. Mechanical engineering assistant professor Alan Asbeck is developing a lightweight exoskeleton to relieve pressure on farmers’ backs and knees, and professor of mechanical engineering Alex Leonessa is generating a robotic glove to assist with gripping objects.

Asbeck and Leonessa collaborate with Niewolny and Divya Srinivasan, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, to ensure the resulting devices will be beneficial, and not harmful, for the wearers. AgrAbility helps link the university with the farming community to help design the robotic assistive technology.

“There’s a trend for technology to get designed by technologists, and often in isolation from the users that it gets designed for,” Srinivasan said. “We’re trying to reverse that trend by saying we need the human piece right at the design stage.”

According to Niewolny, VCE programs are an ideal conduit for information sharing and providing an access point for the feedback needed to implement useful, safe, and appropriate technologies. By expanding such programs across the commonwealth through the SmartFarm Innovation Network, data collection, and ultimately the delivery of better devices for the farming community, will be greatly expedited.

Harvesting an impact

Virginia Tech senior Tori Kegley Alley understands the varying facets of the university’s relationship with growers and producers on a personal level.

“I’ve seen how it goes on the farmer side, watching my dad work with [Extension] agents, but also from the agent’s side and seeing all the research and information that’s available,” said Alley, who is set to graduate in December with a degree in agricultural leadership. “Extension really just bridges that gap between the land-grant university and the farmers and producers.”

A third-generation Pulaski County farmer, Alley grew up heavily involved in her family’s dairy and beef operations. She also actively participated in 4-H programs. During college, she interned with the VCE office in Pulaski County, and her hope is to one day teach agriculture at the secondary level, a decision heavily influenced by her experiences.

“I was always in 4-H and FFA [Future Farmers of America], and we’ve always participated in activities on campus in Blacksburg, so I didn’t even apply to other schools. I knew Tech was what I wanted,” Alley said.

Alley has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of VCE and the advantages of new agricultural-related technology. Her family’s 4,500-acre operation converted to an autonomous, or robotic, milking system in 2013.

The system includes a computerized milking apparatus that employs lasers to guide the teat cups after the udder has been automatically cleaned. Each heifer wears a collar equipped with transponders that not only trigger the milking process, but also identify each cow, record the amount of milk produced, and monitor the animal’s health, activity, and feeding. Milking can continue around the clock—even when no human is present, and the comfort of the cows is central to the operation.

A decline in qualified personnel contributed to the family’s decision to implement the autonomous system, but their success with the new system also affirms the opportunities for technicians, nutritionists, financial specialists, and other supporting roles for those interested in agriculture, even if they are not traditional farmers.

“You have to see it to believe it. It’s a little mind-boggling,” Alley said. “Now we’re milking fewer cows, but making more milk.”

Exposure to innovation, access to research, and assistance moving from concepts to working applications are advantages that many farmers throughout the commonwealth glean from the amalgam of Virginia Tech, the ARECs, and local Extension offices.

“I’ve used them greatly since I started farming,” said Jay Hundley, who has been producing some combination of corn, soy, wheat, and other products in Essex County since the 1970s. “Whether it’s chemical research or identifying a weed species, you could call and talk with them to try to make a plan to deal with it. I’ve always learned a lot from them.”

exoskeletonIndustrial and systems engineering assistant professor Divya Srinivasan (right) watches as student researchers test exoskeletons in the lab. Srinivasan is a human factors expert who is evaluating technologies being created at Virginia Tech for farmers through the NSF Partnership for Innovation grant to ensure they are beneficial to the user. (Photo by Peter Means)

Hundley utilizes an array of precision agriculture technologies, including variable-rate fertilizers, section controls, GPS mapping, and auto-steer for tractors across his 9,000-acre farming operation. The devices are critical to pinpointing and managing specific needs across large chunks of land.

“It’s much more economical because we’re now farming by the acre and not by the whole field,” Hundley said.

Hundley’s experience with technology is common, according to Mike Broaddus ’89, Caroline County Extension agent.

“If you’re not using GPS, you’re either overlapping, or you’re not doing a good job covering,” said Broaddus about spraying crops.

This is also true for planting, where overseeding an area can not only create waste on the front end, but will produce lower yields as crowded plants compete for limited nutrients from the soil and sun. A GPS-guided planting prevents both problems.

“[The benefits] will more than pay for the equipment, but people don’t realize it,” Broaddus said.

Working with Broaddus to incorporate new farming techniques like GPS-guided auto-steer and mapping yields, Dennis Kish, a Caroline County farmer, has seen how technology can provide large returns. Kish said that the VCE proactively advocates for and promotes awareness about new techniques and technologies to keep farmers well-informed.

“There’s meetings everywhere about all of this, weekly crop health reports; it’s a great resource, especially for younger farmers,” Kish said.

Back in Pulaski County, the youngest farmer in the Bunn family, Wyatt, is already tapped into aspects of the SmartFarm Innovation Network through his ongoing participation in various youth programs. Meanwhile, his grandfather, Doug Bunn, and father, Brandon Bunn, stay connected with Pulaski County Extension Agent Morgan Paulette to learn about new technologies and recently, the trio helped Paulette gauge the real-life usefulness of an unmanned drone capturing field images to study vegetation.

“I’m always asking, ‘is this practical and useful on the farm?’”said Paulette about the value of the farmers’ feedback. “They help us answer that.”

For the Bunns, incorporating technology such as GPS auto-steer on their tractors has helped them recognize value of networking with Virginia Tech, the ARECs, and the VCE.

“The first time I used it, I was sold on it. I tell you, it was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Doug Bunn said.

by Travis Williams