Robotics Startup With Ties to CS Wins International Innovation Award
11/20/2020 1:27:59 PM
EarthSense, a startup company related to Illinois CS, has won the 2020 Innovation Award from the Association of University Research Parks (AURP). This award is presented to a technology business in a research or science park that has developed a product or service with the potential to positively impact the economic, health, or welfare status of a broad spectrum of humanity.
Co-founded in 2016 by Illinois professor Girish Chowdhary, Earthsense is applying AI, machine learning, and autonomous robotics to dramatically improve agriculture. The company’s first product is TerraSentia, a compact and teachable robot that uses a number of sensors to collect data on crop health, as well as machine learning-based analytics to convert this data into actionable insights for farmers.
“Agriculture is severely labor constrained and the current automation solutions we have in place are not very efficient,” said Chowdhary, who holds faculty positions with agricultural and biological engineering and computer science. “At EarthSense we believe that AI and robotics hold the key to increasing sustainability and profitability.”
Large crop breeding companies are using TerraSentia to autonomously collect under-canopy data from their fields and extract meaningful quantitative insights using EarthSense’s cloud-based AI platform.
“TerraSentia is helping solve the phenotyping bottleneck, which has been throttling agricultural breeding productivity, and at the same time it’s allowing us to mature our robotics and AI platforms so we can bring advanced technologies to farmers at lower costs,” said Chowdhary.
EarthSense currently employs a CS alumnus—AI engineer Michael McGuire (BS CS ’20)—and three interns—seniors Che Ellis and Vasundhara Agarwal and sophomore Graham Bishop, who are working on AI algorithms and robotic software.
“This award is a great vote of confidence for the innovative and off-the-trodden-path approach EarthSense is taking to bringing AI and robotics to agriculture,” Chowdhary said. “This is a great time to invest in AI and AgTech, and we are very grateful to the University of Illinois, Grainger College of Engineering, ACES, and EnterpriseWorks for the amazing resources they are making available for our community to innovate. Champaign Urbana is well on its way to becoming a key AgTech hub.”
While its focus remains agtech, EarthSense recognizes that its technologies could have wide-ranging impact and applications. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, EarthSense is collaborating with CS associate professor Kris Hauser to adapt its autonomous robots for cleaning in hospitals and public spaces. By reducing the need for sanitary workers, EarthSense’s robotic cleaning units can help lower the community transmission rates of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Chowdhary co-founded EarthSense in 2016 with his childhood friend Chinmay Soman, who was then an NSF postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois (U of I) researching agricultural sustainability, and is now the CEO of EarthSense. The company received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to develop its first robot in 2018 and moved into the EnterpriseWorks incubator at the U of I Research Park to further advance its technology. EarthSense received seed venture capital funding with a round led by Innova ventures, which included also Illinois Ventures, an early-stage technology investment firm focused on research-derived companies from the U of I, Bread and Butter ventures, and several angel investors. The company builds the robots and AI algorithms here in Illinois and deploys them to large corporate agriculture customers around the world.