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ARS Home » Research » Annual Report on Science Accomplishments » FY 2020 » Reducing Labor and Advancing Precision Agriculture through Automation

Reducing Labor and Advancing Precision Agriculture through Automation

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ARS advances labor-saving tools and technologies to aid in breeding and production of crops and livestock, improve preharvest and postharvest processing, and enable nondestructive commodity quality assessment and grading. Current agricultural science incorporates crosscutting advances in technology, automation, informatics, and remote sensing to help industry address labor shortages, fine-tune management decisions, conserve resources, and meet growing demands for food. The following advances in FY 2020 highlight this growing focus.

ARS develops the first automated peanut sampling system. Every load of peanuts a farmer delivers for sale is sampled and graded by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to determine its quality and value. Each load is parked beneath an overhead pneumatic sampler where human operators crawl through the truckload of peanuts to insert a probe up to 15 times in specified locations to obtain samples for testing. ARS engineers in Dawson, GA, designed and installed an instrumentation and control system that automatically senses the load of peanuts under the sampler, locates the trailer, and controls the sampler to probe the trailer according to the prescribed probe patterns. AMS personnel conducted tests for 2 years and have approved the control system for installation at commercial peanut facilities for official sampling. This device reduces the reliance on seasonal labor and improves the consistency and accuracy of the sample used for determining peanut quality and value.

Universal intelligent spray control system benefits the environment, saves growers money. An intelligent spray technology developed by ARS researchers in Wooster, OH, effectively controls pest insects and diseases with significant reductions in pesticide waste to the environment; however, to ensure that growers use this technology economically, it must be adaptable to conventional sprayers. To address this challenge, the researchers developed a universal intelligent spray system as a retrofit unit for conventional orchard sprayers. The retrofit unit was tested in 15 commercial nurseries, fruit and nut orchards, and vineyards in California, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Australia. Field tests demonstrate this new technology can provide pest and disease control that is as effective as conventional spray systems while reducing spray drift by up to 87 percent and ground loss by 90 percent. In addition, pesticide use was reduced by up to 85 percent, resulting in an annual chemical cost saving of $812 per acre, depending on crop type. This cost reduction does not include reductions in labor and fuel costs. The technology was transferred to a commercial partner and a commercial product, “Intelligent Spray Control System” by Smart Guided Systems, LLC, was released to the market. Citrus, apple, grape, nursery, and pecan growers in the United States and other countries have started to upgrade their sprayers with the commercial product. The use of a new laser-guided intelligent spraying system is beneficial to the environment and saves growers money. The ability to retrofit conventional sprayers offers a sustainable and environmentally responsible approach to protecting crops.

Breeding Insight supports ARS specialty crop and animal breeders. ARS specialty crop breeders are often the sole source of publicly available new crop varieties for farmers and growers across the United States and elsewhere. Although specialty crops and animals are a large portion of gross U.S. agricultural revenue, individually these small programs have not had access to innovations that benefited major crop and animal breeding programs and thus have lagged. The ARS Breeding Insight Platform is currently in a pilot phase focused on building support services for six ARS breeding programs (blueberry, table grape, sweet potato, alfalfa, rainbow trout, and North American Atlantic salmon), with the future goal of expansion to all ARS specialty crops, animal, and natural resource breeding programs. The project identified the key workflows common to these diverse programs and initiated the development of extensive software and genomics to support these efforts. Genomic support was delivered for all programs. A key early success was integrating the leading field data collection tool with the community’s leading database. Providing powerful information and genomic tools to ARS specialty crop and animal breeders is helping to improve breeding decisions, meet public demands for more nutritious and flavorful foods, and improve food security for the United States and its trade partners.

Affordable, portable system for rapid crop assessment and precision management.. Phenotyping is the process of collecting data about an organism’s physical characteristics, which is useful for research in breeding better crop species or assessing plant response to stresses like drought and heat. Manually collecting this data is very time-consuming and requires a lot of labor, so scientists are working on ways to increase throughput by automating these measurements. An ARS researcher from Maricopa, AZ, developed and tested a low-cost wireless HTP system powered by a solar rechargeable battery. This system measures vegetation index, canopy temperature, and height from a multispectral camera, an infrared (IR) thermometer, and mini LiDAR sensors, respectively. This portable system can be mounted to unmanned aerial or terrestrial vehicles (drones) for use in fields or to indoor platforms for use in greenhouses or vertical farms. Because it is wireless, the data can be easily monitored from a smartphone or computer. The HTP system enabled automated irrigation control in a plant growth chamber based on soil water condition and automated collection of phenotypic data for months. This innovative data collection system has the potential to be adapted for use in commercial precision agriculture.