EarthSense Creator Girish Chowdhary Discovers Unique Audience, Energy from NSF Visit

10/25/2022 10:21:38 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Out of several amazing moments since beginning the startup company EarthSense in 2016, Illinois Computer Science professor Girish Chowdhary said that few, if any, could top the experience just two Sundays ago when he spoke at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

Girish Chowdhary pictured here in a corn field with one of the robots that his company, EarthSense, has created.
Girish Chowdhary pictured here in a corn field with one of the robots that his company, EarthSense, has created.

At the invitation of NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan, Chowdhary was one of three speakers to address a special audience that included India’s Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman.

The other two speakers included Katie Bouman, an acclaimed computer scientist and astrophysicist from Caltech, and Abhijit Banerjee, a Nobel Prize winning professor in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Speaking about EarthSense at the event, Chowdhary became enthralled with the audience and engaged by the conversations that added new perspective to his company’s work – which has produced a battery-operated, under the crop, robot to capture and analyze data.

“The inspiration for me to represent EarthSense, as I understand it, came from the NSF director, ‘Dr. Panch,’ because of the interest he’s taken in the robotics work we’re doing,” said Chowdhary, who also holds appointments on campus with Agricultural and Biological Engineering as well as the Center for Digital Agriculture. “Our work is about taking computing principles and turning it into actionable devices. And that, to me, is the biggest impact of computer science.

“To be able to speak to my passion for this topic and its execution, was an extraordinary moment.”

Specifically, there were three reasons he was eager to speak in front of Ms. Sitharaman, India’s minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs.

First, Chowdhary thought back on the time he lived in India. Now a United States citizen, his home country remains near to his heart, and the job that the minister has done thus far in her ministerial position has obviously impressed him.

“Minister Sitharaman has a substantial academic background, which has combined well with the capabilities she’s shown throughout her career running several ministries in India,” Chowdhary said. “Plus, as a female leader, she is a very inspiring story. Before going on this NSF visit, I made a point to sit down with my daughters to explain who I was going to speak in front of, and why she is significant.

“That was very important to me, and I felt very honored to speak in front of this highly accomplished person.”

Second, as he thought back on his own time living in India, Chowdhary couldn’t help but realize how that has influenced his own work, currently.

His parents were involved in farming there while he was growing up, so he knows first-hand some of the issues and problems small farmers in the country face.

Chowdhary's robot through EarthSense is designed to go through the crop, collecting data as it travels.
Chowdhary's robot through EarthSense is designed to go through the crop, collecting data as it travels.

That tied in well with his third primary reason for the visit, which was to make the most of this opportunity by speaking about the difference EarthSense technology can make for all farmers – not just the large-scale, monoculture farms that exist here in the U.S.

Describing the robotic system they produced as “scale neutral,” Chowdhary believes EarthSense can make a difference for the type of farms that exist in India.

These farms must produce a variety of crops because the efforts aren’t as specialized there.

“We learned that EarthSense ties in very well with a program minister Sitharaman called, ‘Drone Shakti’ – which translates to English meaning, ‘The Power of Drones,’” Chowdhary said. “What we’re doing, we believe, can expand upon what drones do for agriculture. I’ve worked with drones before, and their effectiveness becomes limited to what they can do while flying over the top of crops.

“Our robot can go through the crop, accessing individual plans along the way. We also have a concept called ‘swarming,’ and, through it, we believe a small number of small robots can help significantly on farms of any size, from small to large.”

The concept is rapidly being developed, Chowdhary said, but to speak about it with an engaged and influential audience was a special moment for the future of EarthSense.

The ensuing Q&A session, following Chowdhary’s speech, led to two more direct discussion about how this technology might impact India.

The first thing minister Sitharaman shared about EarthSense was that it could be helpful with Indian famers who are trying to focus more acutely on traditional crops native to the area. EarthSense can make an impact on small breeding programs by sharing critical data about the crop, the land, and the climate.

Secondly, the AI and data capturing impact of EarthSense is appealing to a country like India, because the agriculture is so highly diverse. The tropical climate forces this to be the case, and farmers could benefit from learning more about best practices with each crop. Finally, more information for the crop could also improve the supply chain process associated with it.

These types of interactions inspire Chowdhary to continue all of his pursuits, including other related efforts – like the newly-funded project by USDA called the “Farm of the Future.”

“The entire scope of this discussion was extremely encouraging, because it speaks so well to ways in which we can be serious about translating our research into impact here at Illinois Computer Science, and the Center for Digital Agriculture,” Chowdhary said. “Asking an AI startup to such a conversation is a huge step forward, and I couldn’t be more appreciative to ‘Dr. Panch’ and the NSF for inviting EarthSense.

“Additionally, it was important to gather the minister’s unique perspective. Now we know much more about an entirely different faction of society and what they might think of our technology. That can only help as we continue to search for new angles to our thinking and go for impact with our research.”