Posts Tagged: innovation
When flown at the right times, drones can help farmers adapt to a changing climate
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have developed a web application to help farmers and industry workers use drones and other uncrewed aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to generate the best possible data. By helping farmers use resources more efficiently, this advancement could help them adapt to a world with a changing climate that needs to feed billions.
Associate Professor Alireza Pourreza, director of the UC Davis Digital Agriculture Lab and postdoctoral researcher Hamid Jafarbiglu, who recently completed his doctorate in biological systems engineering under Pourreza, designed the When2Fly app to make drones more proficient and accurate. Specifically, the platform helps drone users avoid glare-like areas called hotspots that can ruin collected data.
Drone users select the date they plan to fly, the type of camera they are using and their location either by selecting a point on a map or by entering coordinates. The app then indicates the best times of that specific day to collect crop data from a drone.
Jafarbiglu and Pourreza, who is also a UC Cooperative Extension specialist of agricultural mechanization, said that using this app for drone imaging and data collection is crucial to improve farming efficiency and mitigate agriculture's carbon footprint. Receiving the best data — like what section of an orchard might need more nitrogen or less water, or what trees are being affected by disease — allows producers to allocate resources more efficiently and effectively.
"In conventional crop management, we manage the entire field uniformly assuming every single plant will produce a uniform amount of yield, and they require a uniform amount of input, which is not an accurate assumption," said Pourreza. "We need to have an insight into our crops' spatial variability to be able to identify and address issues timely and precisely, and drones are these amazing tools that are accessible to growers, but they need to know how to use them properly."
Dispelling the solar noon belief
In 2019, Jafarbiglu was working to extract data from aerial images of walnut and almond orchards and other specialty crops when he realized something was wrong with the data.
"No matter how accurately we calibrated all the data, we were still not getting good results," said Jafarbiglu. "I took this to Alireza, and I said, 'I feel there's something extra in the data that we are not aware of and that we're not compensating for.' I decided to check it all."
Jafarbiglu pored through the 100 terabytes of images collected over three years. He noticed that after the images had been calibrated, there were glaring bright white spots where they were supposed to look flat and uniform.
But it couldn't be a glare because the sun was behind the drone taking the image. So Jafarbiglu reviewed literature going back to the 1980s in search of other examples of this phenomenon. Not only did he find mentions of it, but also that researchers had coined a term for it: hotspot.
A hotspot happens when the sun and UAV are lined up in such a way that the drone is between the viewable area of the camera's lens system and the sun. The drone takes photos of the Earth, and the resulting images have a gradual increase in brightness toward a certain area. That bright point is the hotspot.
The hotspots are a problem, Jafarbiglu said, because when collecting UAV data in agriculture, where a high level of overlap is required, observed differences in the calibrated images need to come solely from plant differences.
For example, every plant may appear in 20 or more images, each from varying view angles. In some images, the plant might be close to the hotspot, while in others it may be situated further away, so the reflectance may vary based on the plant's distance from the hotspot and spatial location in the frame, not based on any of the plant's inherent properties. If all these images are combined into a mosaic and data are extracted, the reliability of the data would be compromised, rendering it useless.
Pourreza and Jafarbiglu found that the hotspots consistently occurred when drones were taking images at solar noon in mid-summer, which many believe is the best time to fly drones. It's an obvious assumption: the sun is at its highest point above the Earth, variations in illumination are minimal, if not steady and fewer shadows are visible in the images. However, sometimes that works against the drone because the sun's geometrical relationship to the Earth varies based on location and the time of year, increasing the chance of having a hotspot inside the image frame when the sun is higher in the sky.
"In high-latitude regions such as Canada, you don't have any problem; you can fly anytime. But then in low-latitude regions such as California, you will have a little bit of a problem because of the sun angle," Pourreza said. "Then as you get closer to the equator, the problem gets bigger and bigger. For example, the best time of flight in Northern California and Southern California will be different. Then you go to summer in Guatemala, and basically, from 10:30 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. you shouldn't fly, depending on the field-oriented control of the camera. It's exactly the opposite of the conventional belief, that everywhere we should fly at solar noon."
Grow technology, nourish the planet
Drones are not the only tools that can make use of this discovery, which was funded by the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems. Troy Magney, an assistant professor of plant sciences at UC Davis, mainly uses towers to scan fields and collect plant reflectance data from various viewing angles. He contacted Jafarbiglu after reading his research, published in February in the ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, because he was seeing a similar issue in the remote sensing of plants and noted that it's often ignored by end users.
"The work that Hamid and Ali have done will be beneficial to a wide range of researchers, both at the tower and the drone scale, and help them to interpret what they are actually seeing, whether it's a change in vegetation or a change in just the angular impact of the signal," he said.
For Pourreza, the When2Fly app represents a major step forward in deploying technology to solve challenges in agriculture, including the ultimate conundrum: feeding a growing population with limited resources.
"California is much more advanced than other states and other countries with technology, but still our agriculture in the Central Valley uses technologies from 30 to 40 years ago," said Pourreza. "My research is focused on sensing, but there are other areas like 5G connectivity and cloud computing to automate the data collection and analytics process and make it real-time. All this data can help growers make informed decisions that can lead to an efficient food production system. When2Fly is an important element of that."
Atef Swelam begins as director of Kearney and West Side Research and Extension Centers
In the fields around the Egyptian city of Minya Al-Qamh, “port of wheat” in Arabic, a boy rubbed his eyes wearily as he helped his father irrigate their crops at 2 a.m. – when they could access the scarce water that reached their farm, located at the tail end of the canal. The family, which had been farming the land around the village of Sharqia for many generations, barely had enough water to sustain their wheat and vegetables.
Swatting in the darkness at the incessantly biting mosquitoes, a young Atef Swelam made a vow.
“I said: ‘I will do my best to not let anyone suffer like I have suffered, like my father suffered – I will help to improve the lives of others,'” recalled Swelam, who went on to become an irrigation engineer improving water-use efficiency.
During the World Food Forum (Oct. 16-20), Swelam was recognized by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization as a “Water and Food Hero” for developing irrigation techniques that save water and boost yields across the Nile Delta and beyond.
Swelam started on Aug. 10 as director of both the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier and the West Side REC in Five Points. Both facilities are part of a network of centers operated by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Our organization, and more importantly the communities we serve in the Central Valley and across California, are so fortunate that Atef has joined our team,” said Brent Hales, UC ANR associate vice president for research and Cooperative Extension. “He brings not only a record of truly impactful research and innovation but a genuine passion for learning the needs of people, working with them and developing collaborative, science-based solutions.”
Making a difference in the lives of people
After earning his master's degree in land and water management from the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari in Italy, Swelam returned to Egypt for his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering at Zagazig University. There, he advanced to become a professor of irrigation and drainage engineering in 2019; he was also a senior scientist and research team leader with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (CGIAR-ICARDA). Most recently, Swelam was the agricultural research officer of the U.N.-FAO's Office of Innovation in Rome.
Swelam explained that the mandate, function, mission and vision of UC ANR's research and extension network – and its strong reputation for making an impact through co-creation with clientele – attracted him to this position in California.
“I'm always looking to make a difference on the ground and in the lives of people,” he said. “If you look at the locations where all RECs are located, they are inside the communities themselves, and in the heart of the farming system.”
Swinging between Kearney and West Side RECs, Swelam said he feels he works in an empowering environment, created and supported by the leadership as well as by the staff at both centers – “a dynamic is which hard to find elsewhere.”
Darren Haver, recently named director of the statewide system of RECs, said he will work with Swelam to explore ways to secure the resources that the Kearney and West Side teams need.
“Atef brings a wealth of experience in conducting research as well as working to elevate and amplify the research and outreach of others,” said Haver, formerly the director of South Coast REC in Irvine. “He clearly is committed to making a difference locally, nationally and globally and we are excited to support him as his vision for these two RECs evolves.”
Being a farmer and a scientist, Swelam feels he is on the same wavelength with both of the RECs' clientele groups – researchers and growers. In his first months on the job, Swelam said he will get to know the needs of the grower community and the researchers at the RECs.
“What I like most about this job is that the REC system, with its research for development approach, supports the scientists, who are in turn supporting the farmers and communities that are on the front line in achieving food and nutrition security,” he explained.
When tailoring solutions to meet local conditions, Swelam added that it's essential that community members are involved so they feel a sense of ownership and are committed to sustaining its impact beyond the time limits of a research or extension project.
Innovative irrigation technique used worldwide
A prominent example of Swelam's community-based work is his long-term mechanized raised-bed (MRB) irrigation program, the technology for which he has garnered numerous international honors.
While he was a researcher at the CGIAR-ICARDA, Swelam led several projects between 2010 and 2020 to study new soil and water practices at farm level. Through a project at his home village, he developed a cost-effective, small-scale machine to enable growing wheat on raised beds. This was in contrast to flat flooded land – the traditional, labor- and resource-intensive method that produced irrigation inefficiencies and caused shortages for downstream farmers like his father, Haj Ibrahim.
With MRB, precisely placed trenches between the raised beds would hold exactly the amount of water the adjacent crops need and thus leave more water for all. And while the technique seemed promising, Swelam had to convince skeptical farmers to adopt the practices – including his neighbors and his own father.
“He was very resistant to me in the beginning, because this was the first time ever in Egypt using raised beds for wheat cultivation…he even tried to convince people not to follow me,” Swelam said, with a chuckle.
So father and son divided their fields, with one half planted and irrigated using traditional methods, and the other using the raised-bed approach. Gradually, as MRB began to prove its worth, Haj Ibrahim warmed to the technology and became an active collaborator on the research – even helping the scientist when he was puzzled by experiment results.
“My father was my mobile library,” Swelam said. “He was illiterate – he had never been in a school – but his thinking and knowledge about the real agriculture and farming system were much better than those of a professor like me!”
After the initial research trials produced successes in his village and the larger governorate (a political division within Egypt), the technique was replicated in other governorates across the country – which then attracted the attention of other nations and international organizations.
Overall, Swelam said, the technology helped the growers reduce applied water by 25% and cut farming costs by 25%, while boosting fertilizer use efficiency by 30% and increasing yield by 25%.
Today, MRB is applied by more than 2 million farmers in the Middle East and North Africa to a variety of crops and is recognized as a good agricultural practice by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
“The biggest recognition and reward for me out of this impactful innovation is seeing the smiles on the faces of farmers,” Swelam said.
Spreading best practices across San Joaquin Valley and beyond
Swelam said he hopes to see similarly positive results for farmers here in California with a wide range of innovations. He and other researchers at Kearney and West Side RECs will continue to make sure that the science and knowledge generated at the centers reach farmers. He added that partnering with local growers to optimize their on-farm practices is crucial on a host of issues, from pest management to water conservation.
“Whatever we do to improve supply management at system level, if the water is not used efficiently at farm level, then we lose everything we had achieved at that macro level,” he explained.
Swelam added that investing intensive time and effort in developing practical, cost-effective solutions will pay off in the long run as they become naturally adopted across the grower community.
“Farmers are very clever and skilled with their farming systems,” he said. “When they see or get benefits from something, they promote it among themselves.”
Swelam's father was one example. After leading the resistance against mechanized raised beds initially, he eventually became its most vocal proponent.
“He became the biggest promoter for this technology; he even promoted it on local and international TV and radio programs,” Swelam said. “I was proud of my father.”
Haj Ibrahim died in 2017 and Swelam continues to pay tribute to his father through his life's work on research and extension – inspired by their long struggles to bring water to their crops, and the shared triumph of their new techniques./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
Students must form teams by Oct. 31; proposals due Nov. 15
Registration is now open for college teams competing in the 2024 Farm Robotics Challenge and proposals are due Nov. 15. The collegiate competition is organized by The VINE, an initiative of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, in collaboration with farm-ng, F3 Innovate and AI Institute for Next Gen Food Systems.
The Farm Robotics Challenge is an annual event where teams of students from universities and colleges across the United States tackle real-world farming challenges. The competition focuses on small-farm applications and leverages the state-of-the-art Amiga robot to integrate robotics into agricultural research. This year, the challenge is expanding by introducing a new division for two-year colleges, to allow more students to participate.
“The Farm Robotics Challenge is not just another competition; it's a transformative experience designed to cultivate the next generation of leaders in agricultural technology,” said Gabe Youtsey, UC ANR chief innovation officer and founder of The VINE. “By participating in this challenge, students are not only showcasing their technical skills, but also contributing to a larger mission — advancing sustainable and efficient farming practices for the future. We're incredibly excited to see the solutions that these young entrepreneurs will bring to the table.”
Teams are expected to address a variety of production farming topics, which can range from any crop or size of farm. The challenges for the competition are categorized into three main areas: Autonomy, which includes course navigation; Artificial Intelligence, focusing on vision and sensing as well as dataset collection; and Attachment, which involves the development of devices that can be attached to the robot for farm tasks..
“We're proud to join forces with the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources for the second annual Farm Robotics Challenge," said Ethan Rublee, CEO of farm-ng. "With our Amiga robotics platform, our aim is to not only inspire the next wave of agricultural innovation, but also to prepare the workforce that will bring these innovations to life.”
Judging for the competition will be based on a range of criteria including the accuracy and completeness of the project, the elegance and ease of use in the design, safety measures, interdisciplinary inclusion, societal and economic impact, cost considerations, and the commercial and market potential of the solution.
The competition will consist of two main parts: market research, project proposal and fundraising; followed by development, coding and fabrication. Key dates include:
- Team formation deadline: Oct. 31
- Project proposal submission deadline: Nov. 15
- Development start: Jan. 31, 2024
- Judging: Sept. 6, 2024
Interested students, universities and investors are encouraged to visit the official Farm Robotics Challenge website at www.farmroboticschallenge.ai to fill out interest forms and get involved. The website also features detailed information about the challenges and judging criteria.
About The VINE
The VINE, an initiative of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, is California's agriculture, food, and biotech innovation network. Our mission is to harness the power of open innovation to help industries and entrepreneurs grow and scale globally while catalyzing technology innovation and commercialization for productive, sustainable and equitable food systems.
Established on Oct. 1, 2020, the Artificial Intelligence Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, or AIFS, aims to solve the world's biggest challenges to crop and food production facing our planet: ensuring a sustainable, nutritious, efficient and safe food supply while mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Based in Watsonville, farm-ng is building general purpose off-road robotics hardware and software products. The company's mission is to transform the food system by democratizing access for the smallest farmer to cutting-edge robotics technology.
About F3 Innovate
Headquartered in California's Central Valley, F3 Innovate is the U.S. epicenter for climate-smart agrifood tech. With proximity to over 13,650 farms and 5 million acres of farmland, we collaborate with top research institutions to advance industry research and development. Supported by federal and state funding, F3 Innovate is geared to shape the future of sustainable food production worldwide.
A new avocado, one that complements the widely known ‘Hass,' will hit the world market soon. The ‘Luna UCR' variety (trademarked and patent pending) has several characteristics that should be of interest to both growers and consumers, said Mary Lu Arpaia, University of California Cooperative Extension subtropical horticulture specialist based at UC Riverside.
From the grower perspective, the tree is about half the size of the leading variety while producing approximately the same yield per tree as ‘Hass,' meaning that growers could plant more trees per acre, therefore increasing yield. It also makes harvesting easier and safer.
Another advantage is the flowering behavior of the tree. Avocado trees are categorized into either Type A or Type B flower types. It is generally accepted that you need both flower types in a planting to maximize productivity. The ‘Hass' is an “A” flower type and ‘Luna UCR' is a Type “B.”
This is a potential boost for growers since the current varieties that are “B” flower types ripen green and generally receive lower prices for the grower. Similar to ‘Hass,' however, the ‘Luna UCR' colors as it ripens.
“Hopefully, it will receive similar returns to the ‘Hass' once it is an established variety,” Arpaia added.
Fruit breeding is a long-term process that she has navigated by building upon the work of her predecessors. Of course, Arpaia has had strong support from colleagues as well, including Eric Focht, a UC Riverside staff researcher and co-inventor of ‘Luna UCR.'
“We had been looking at ‘Luna UCR' for some time and it was always a very good eating fruit,” Focht said. “After the 2003 release of ‘GEM' (registered and patented as ‘3-29-5', 2003) and ‘Harvest' (patented as ‘N4(-)5', 2003) varieties, ‘Luna UCR' was always the top contender for a next release due to the small, narrow growth habit, “B” flower type and the fruit quality.”
“It's a very nice-looking fruit as well and seemed to be a pretty consistent bearer from year to year.”
A glimpse at how it all started
In spring 1996, Arpaia took over the UC Avocado Breeding Program following Guy Witney who led the program from 1992 to 1995, and Bob Bergh whose initial efforts in the 1950s were foundational in the inception of ‘Luna UCR.'
Arpaia recalls the first trials in the early 2000s of ‘Luna UCR,' which were tested alongside other promising selections from the Bergh program. “There were a lot of varieties that didn't perform well, some of which had poor storage life, an important trait that we need if we are going to get the fruit to consumers across the country,” said Arpaia.
The original seed and selection were planted at the Bob Lamb Ranch in Camarillo, and originally advanced trials of the ‘Luna UCR' variety were planted in four locations: UC Lindcove Research and Extension Center in Tulare County, UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Orange County, a privately owned farm in San Diego County and another one in Ventura County.
The RECs are among the nine hubs operated by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources to support research and educate the public on regional agricultural and natural resource challenges.
ANR Research and Extension Centers become vital
Unfortunately, the 2017 Thomas Fire burned the avocado trees in Ventura, said Arpaia. After a change in management, the trial located in San Diego County was also terminated, leaving the two trials at Lindcove and South Coast REC.
“South Coast REC has a long history of supporting research and extension activities of high value crops important to California, including avocados,” said Darren Haver, director of the South Coast REC, which was often used to show growers the new varieties that were being developed.
“Many of the REC staff have worked with the avocado-breeding program researchers for more than two decades and continue to work closely with them to ensure the success of new avocado varieties, including ‘Luna UCR',” he added.
In addition to the support provided by South Coast and Lindcove RECs, Arpaia said that UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fresno County – another UC ANR facility – made it possible for her team to conduct critical postharvest and sensory research, and consumer testing of the fruit, which included up to six-week trials of fruit ratings for storage life and taste.
“UC ANR has played an important role in our ability to not only identify ‘Luna UCR', but in preparing it for the world market, too,” she said.
Preparing to share with the world
Since 2015, Focht had been collecting data for the patent application. Now that he and Arpaia have successfully patented and trademarked ‘Luna UCR,' they are preparing to expand production by engaging interested growers with the commercial partner, Green Motion who is based in Spain.
“Green Motion contracted for 1,000 trees to be generated by Brokaw Nursery and those trees are currently being distributed, with earliest field plantings likely taking place in fall,” explained Focht.
Focht also said that Mission Produce, based in Oxnard, CA has contracted to graft over a small number of “B” flower type pollinizer trees to the new ‘Luna UCR' variety, possibly making way for a small number of avocados to be available the following year.
Once planted, the avocado trees will come into “full” production in about five years.
Validation of Innovation Program provides supportive ecosystem for startups
The VINE, an initiative by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, is now accepting applications for its VINE Validation of Innovation Program. The program aims to support innovation in the agri-tech sector, particularly in climate-resilient solutions for California food systems.
Made possible with support from a UC Climate Action grant, the program is inviting startups to apply, with a focus on providing comprehensive support for field trials – a critical stage for any agri-tech venture.
"Field trials are vital for validating new innovations in the agri-tech sector,” said Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer with UC ANR and founder of The VINE. “The VINE VIP aims to provide a supportive environment for carrying out these essential tests, bridging the gap between innovative concepts and real-world application."
Elif Ceylan, co-founder of OpenGate Partners and head of the VINE VIP, also stressed the importance of field trials.
"Field trials serve as a crucial phase where promising ideas either succeed or require adjustment,” Ceylan said. “We are committed to prioritizing this stage to ensure the effectiveness and relevance of emerging agri-tech solutions."
The VINE VIP offers more than field trials. It provides a supportive ecosystem for startups, including industry connections, access to a broad network of farmers and experts, comprehensive validation results and market entry support. The program is a unique accelerator that pairs startups with project partners in the agri-tech industry, facilitating Proof of Concept projects and commercialization trials for industry-defined challenges in California agriculture.
By connecting startups with farmers, academics and industry experts, the program aims to validate, advance, adopt and amplify innovative technologies, reducing technological risks and accelerating sales through its extensive industry network.
Startups interested in joining the VINE VIP can apply until Sept. 16, 2023. Detailed information about the program and the application process is available on The VINE's website at thevine.io/vip.
The VINE is an initiative of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, dedicated to fostering agriculture, food, and biotech innovation in California. Our mission is to support industries and entrepreneurs while promoting technology innovation and commercialization for sustainable and equitable food systems. We connect entrepreneurs with public and private sector resources, encourage collaborations to address industry challenges, and promote regional capacity for global innovation as an economic opportunity./h3>