The Robots are Coming – to your Farm

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Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor, UIUC


What if a team of collaborative autonomous robots grew your food for you? In this talk, I will discuss some key advances in robotics, machine learning, and autonomy that could soon enable teams of small robots to grow more varied, tastier, and healthier food in a fundamentally more sustainable way.

Teams of small aerial and ground robots could be a potential solution to many of the serious problems that modern agriculture is facing. However, fully autonomous robots that operate without supervision for weeks, months, or entire growing season are not yet practical. I will discuss my group’s theoretical and practical work towards the underlying challenging problems in robotic systems, autonomy, sensing, and learning. I will begin with our lightweight, compact, and autonomous field robot TerraSentia and the recent successes of this type of under-canopy robots for high-throughput phenotyping with deep learning-based machine vision. I will then discuss advancements to visual navigation, reinforcement learning, and onboard AI for  increasing levels of autonomy to address other pressing problems in agriculture throughout the world, including regenerative agriculture, and agriculture in arid/desert environments.

Brief Biography

Girish Chowdhary is an associate professor and Donald Biggar Willet Faculty Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the director of the Field Robotics Engineering and Science Hub (FRESH) at UIUC and the Chief Scientist on the Illinois Autonomous Farm. Girish is affiliated with Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Computer Science, Aerospace Engineering, and Electrical Engineering. He holds a PhD (2010) from Georgia Institute of Technology in Aerospace Engineering. He was a postdoc at the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011-2013), and an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department (2013-2016). He also worked with the German Aerospace Center's (DLR's) Institute of Flight Systems for around three years (2003-2006). Girish’s work on AI and adaptive flight control has led to several key advances to flight-control and his Dave Ward memorial award by Aerospace Guidance and Controls committee. Some highlights include creation of an autopilot that can handle severe failure cases mid-flight in real-time. Girish is the author of over 90 publications in autonomy and robotics, and PI on NSF, AFOSR, NASA, ARPA-E, and DOE grants, and an ONR MURI. He is the winner of the Air Force Young Investigator Award, and several best paper awards, including a best systems paper award at RSS 2018 for his recent work on the agricultural robot TerraSentia, which has since been heralded as the device that can usher in a new era in high throughput phenotyping. He is the co-founder of EarthSense Inc., working towards making sustainable farming profitable with ultralight field robots.

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