Chowdhary Involved in Project Receiving iSEE Funding to Reduce Manual Labor Costs in Urban Farming

3/15/2023 Julie Wurth, iSEE, and Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Illinois CS professor Girish Chowdhary continues making an impact in digital agriculture through the Robot Integrated High Tunnels (RobInHighTs) project that seeks to use AI-powered robotics to automate operations for high tunnels at the Sustainable Student Farm.

Written by Julie Wurth, iSEE, and Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

The Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) is providing seed funding for two new research projects at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that will use automation to enhance waste sorting for campus recycling efforts and reduce manual labor costs in small urban farming operations.

Girish Chowdhary
Girish Chowdhary

Illinois Computer Science professor Girish Chowdhary is involved in the latter project, led by Naveen Kumar Uppalapati, Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The Robot Integrated High Tunnels (RobInHighTs) project will use AI-powered robotics to automate operations for high tunnels at the Sustainable Student Farm – leading to improved crop yields, reduced manual labor costs, and higher profits.

“Robotics and AI hold great promise to deal with the labor shortage in agriculture and to improve the sustainability of our food and cropping systems. In addition, plant manipulation in cluttered, deformable, and occluded real-world tomato farms is a challenging AI problem that has the potential to drive broad advances in robotics,” said Chowdhary, a co-PI on the project who also holds an appointment in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Picture of curved metal structures covered with greenhouse plastic that are ideal for growing plants on small urban farms.
Image courtesy iSEE
Chowdhary's involvement in this iSEE funded project will focus on evaluating the profitability of and identifying barriers associated with the use of RobInHighTs.

This team will also evaluate the profitability of RobInHighTs and identify barriers to their use by urban and minority farmers. RobInHighTs can ultimately help transition amateur urban gardeners and growers into profitable long-term farmers, enabling efficient and fresh local food production and opening up new income streams for small and underserved communities.         

This work received funding through iSEE’s 2023 Campus as a Living Laboratory (CALL) program, which supports research teams that tackle interdisciplinary sustainability issues on campus or in neighboring communities. They focus on leveraging campus infrastructure and enhancing researchers’ capacity to address critical knowledge gaps and ultimately secure major federal, foundation, or private funding.

“U of I researchers are applying the latest advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to overcome environmental challenges confronting our communities and the world at large,” said Jeremy Guest, iSEE Associate Director for Research. “Through these grants, our engineers, scientists, and university staff will tackle the pervasive problem of municipal waste and help make sustainable farming more accessible to all, using our own facilities as a model.”

Seed-funded teams are expected to work with iSEE to submit proposals for external funding of at least $1M.

“We are excited to work with these teams to help grow these projects into full-fledged interdisciplinary research programs,” Guest said.

Read the full story from iSEE.

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This story was published March 15, 2023.