The future of digital agriculture

CDA's output affects a number of areas of agriculture, including livestock, bioengineering, sustainability, AI and farming.
Credit: NCSA

The Center for Digital Agriculture showcased the many advancements in digital agriculture during its annual conference.

When the Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA) launched in 2018, they were looking forward to the future. Like many other areas of commerce and big tech, agriculture is a rapidly changing industry. Advancements in technology have transformed farming. In the five-plus years since its launch, CDA has risen to meet those needs by creating adaptable, interdisciplinary curriculums, research programs, industry partnerships and training opportunities for scientists and students.

This year, CDA is celebrating its successes and more at the annual Center for Digital Agriculture conference, hosted right here on the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign campus at the iHotel and Illinois Conference Center. With a slate of new leadership, CDA has hosted the biggest and brightest conference yet with a theme of the “Future of Digital Agriculture,” an ambitious theme for an even more ambitious organization. CDA’s efforts to sustain the current needs of agriculture and anticipate future needs have been highly successful so far, with programs designed to train new experts in digital agriculture and repeated success in obtaining competitive grants for research in digital agriculture.

The CDA conference is intended to celebrate the first five years of the center and to provide a preview into the opportunities ahead as we expand our role in advancing digital agriculture in collaboration with our academic and industry partners.

–John Reid, executive director, Center for Digital Agriculture

Each year, CDA builds upon the research and accomplishments of the last and showcases them at this annual conference. Digital Agriculture is at the forefront of the blending of supercomputing resources and academic research, and the projects on display at the conference showcase the highly applicable nature of CDA’s efforts. “The CDA conference was a great opportunity for me to connect with practitioners and get a new perspective on the challenges in Ag,” said Katie Driggs-Campbell, a presenter and assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at UIUC. “Connecting with experts in different areas and outside of academia gave new insights on the real concerns and of the potential impacts our research can have on our food systems.”

More than 150 attendees had their choice of topics from a robust agenda that included experts in academia and industry speaking on topics ranging from automation in crop production to supply chain models to catalyzing a circular bioeconomy to applying human-centered design in ag. The one-day conference was packed with information and provided attendees with a host of tools and knowledge to take away.

Yongsheng Chen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering from Georgia Tech, delivered the keynote presentation titled “Coupling Resource Recovery with Digital Agriculture and AI to Enhance Urban Sustainability and Resilience.”

“I am excited about being the keynote speaker,” Chen said. “CDA provides a dynamic platform that brings together diverse perspectives and expertise in the field. My speech aims to highlight the crucial role CDA plays in fostering collaboration, innovation, and knowledge exchange.”

His presentation set the stage nicely for the conference theme. “My message focused on emphasizing how digital agriculture holds the potential to instigate meaningful and sustainable change in the agricultural sector,” he said.

The conference catalyzes connecting professionals, sharing insights, and collectively shaping the future. I believe that through CDA, we can leverage the collective intelligence of our community to address contemporary challenges and propel advancements in science and technology.

–Yongsheng Chen, civil and environmental engineering professor, Georgia Tech

Attendees often mentioned his address when talking about conference highlights. Ariel Polk, a livestock research assistant from Tuskeegee University, said, “It’s my second time attending the CDA conference. It’s been awesome.” She went on to describe Chen’s presentation as the highlight of all the things she attended. “Dr. Chen spoke about reusing waste and water to convert it to nutrient-filled water to promote higher efficiency in agricultural growth. That was cool. I didn’t even know you could do that. He described ways to extract nutrients from waste, like in waterways throughout the city. And I think that’s a great use of water and reclamation.”

Attendees included a mix of academics, students and industry professionals. Alan Singleton might not seem like the kind of attendee you’d find at an agriculture conference. As the president of Singleton Law Firm, with a specialization in legal services for tech entrepreneurs, he found the discussions enlightening and inspiring.

“As I listened to the presentation of technical solutions or approaches to a specific challenge in agriculture, I couldn’t help but think about their applications beyond the immediate context,” he said. “Each time a speaker introduced a method or technology and its application to a specific ag problem, it sparked me to think about parallel applications to other problems in ag, as well as other industries. It’s fascinating to consider how these concepts while being applied in agriculture, are applicable and beneficial across a variety of sectors.”

Gerald Wilson, the director of entrepreneurship at EnterpriseWorks found the conference to have good strategic value for his clients. “We have a number of companies who are building on some of the technology platforms that we heard about over the course of the day so far,” Wilson said. “From my perspective, it’s helpful to understand what’s at the cutting edge of the industries in which our startups are operating. That way, we can understand the competitive landscape, we can understand the value chains in which these companies are building, and we can better think through how to advise them on their growth strategy.”

Industry partnership is an essential component of CDA’s work, and the conference gave ample space for experts in this realm to showcase the ways in which collaborative efforts and digital agriculture can address real-world problems with applicable solutions. Wilfried Aulbur, senior partner at Roland Berger Global Consulting, delivered the industry keynote address on the topic of precision farming and autonomy to support a sustainable farming future.

“Feeding a still growing global population adequately and sustainably is one of the most important and most pressing challenges of our times,” he said. “Faced with climate change, soil degradation, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, water scarcity, etc., agriculture is at the forefront of this fight. For agriculture to do its part and be able to provide sufficient nutrients, we must rely on technology.”

“Digital agriculture, precision farming and robotics are all key ingredients that help us manage today’s challenges and ensure a more sustainable and promising future,” he said. “CDA is in the thick of these activities and plays a vital role in supporting the industry’s transition and development.”

CDA is developing an industry partners program to increase partnership opportunities between CDA and ag tech companies and startups. By collaborating with CDA, these companies can gain access to a suite of benefits that can help advance and accelerate their research and development efforts and expand their workforce. To stay up-to-date on the CDA Industry Partners Program and center offerings and opportunities, sign up for their mailing list.

ABOUT CENTER FOR DIGITAL AGRICULTURE

The Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA) draws on Illinois’ historic land-grant pillars of agriculture and engineering to shape the future of the agriculture industry. The center brings together researchers, educators, industry and agricultural producers to transform how we feed and support a growing global population through innovative approaches. CDA also boasts a Master’s of Engineering in Digital Agriculture and six certificate programs that address the profound workforce shortage in this field by providing graduates and working professionals with in-depth knowledge and technical skills. CDA is a multidisciplinary effort at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign between the Grainger College of Engineering, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Institute for Genomic Biology.

Media Contact

Dina Meek
National Center for Supercomputing Applications
dinameek@illinois.edu

Media Contact

Dina Meek
National Center for Supercomputing Applications

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