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Scientists Harness Robots and AI to Revolutionize Farming


Models Can Analyze and Identify Pathogens with Accuracy Equivalent to or Exceeding Human Experts




By Seth Moser-Katz


At Cornell AgriTech, formerly the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station, scientists are unleashing the power of robotics and artificial intelligence to tackle major challenges facing farmers and drive a revolution in agricultural productivity and sustainability.

“My program here really emphasizes agriculture robotics and image analysis for farm monitoring, precision management to enhance productivity, quality, and finally, profitability,” said Dr. Yu Jiang, Assistant Professor of Cyber-Agricultural Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) Laboratory at Cornell AgriTech. 

One core focus of Jiang’s work is harnessing imaging robots and cutting-edge AI models to rapidly accelerate research on plant diseases, genetics and optimizing cultivars for regional conditions. “In the past four decades, we found probably 20 genes that control disease resistance to grapevine powdery mildew,” he explained. “But in 2023 alone, with just eight of our specialized imaging robots and our AI analysis systems, we found 60 more genes that can potentially control that devastating disease.” 


Microscope Imaging Robots

The robots, which Jiang refers to as “microscope imaging robots,” acquire high-resolution microscopic images at a blistering pace. “Our robots can acquire these microscopic images to understand disease progression at least six times faster than traditional manual methods that require a technician to slowly observe samples under a microscope,” Jiang said.

The AI models then analyze and identify pathogens in the images with accuracy equivalent to or exceeding human experts. “Combining robotics and AI, we achieve at least 100 times faster throughput in revealing phenotypic changes and supporting the discovery of disease resistance genes compared to old methods,” he said.

The rapid speed allows researchers to quickly identify desirable genetic traits and disease-resistant plant cultivars customized for regional farm conditions. Imagine a world where every farm is able to custom order seeds that are specifically tailored to the conditions at individual farms! “At the end of the day, we’ll have grape cultivars that produce the needed quality, taste and yields for wine making in New York,” Jiang stated, “but with natural resistance to powdery mildew and requiring much lower use of chemical fungicides.”


Robots Helping in Labor Shortage

Robotics is also being leveraged to help growers overcome worsening farm labor shortages. “Here in the U.S., only 3% of the population works in agriculture to feed all the rest,” Jiang noted. “Many fruit and vegetable growers face critical labor shortages that impact profitability.”  

New robotic systems developed at Cornell could offer relief. “We can rely on coordinated swarms of agricultural robots that can autonomously perform jobs like precision pruning, harvesting, spraying and weeding much faster and with far better accuracy than manual labor,” Jiang said. “This will enable growers to dramatically reduce labor costs and improve quality, while also opening opportunities for higher-skilled technical jobs maintaining and servicing the robots.”

Another key challenge being tackled is integrated weed management in the face of reduced herbicide options. “With fewer chemicals approved for use, we must find new ways to control weeds without negatively selecting for resistant strains,” Jiang explained. “We are developing robotic mechanical weeding, laser guidance systems that precisely burn individual weeds, and electrocution robots that use high voltage electricity to kill weeds from the top down to the roots. Our goal is to create an optimal integrated system that balances the use of chemical, mechanical, and novel technology methods to sustainably manage weeds long-term.”

Jiang has a strong belief that agriculture stands at an inflection point enabled by technology. “We now have a huge opportunity to use robots, AI, and intelligent decision-making as a fundamentally new way of farming,” he said. “It’s no longer about manual labor - we can develop robotic assistants and data-driven practices that help farmers be more efficient, profitable, and environmentally sustainable.” 

“For students interested in technology and making an impact, this is the best time to get involved in agriculture and be part of pushing it boldly into the future. By combining nature, technology, and big ideas, the next generation of agricultural innovators can revolutionize how we produce food and sustain farming communities,” he said.


Photo caption: Dr. Yu Jiang shows off one of his custom-built robot used for in-between-row weeding. The robot in this picture is Oz from Naïo, a French company that manufactures ag robots. (Photo by Seth Moser-Katz)