Cornell AgriTech/CALS chosen as specialty crop hub for NASA Acres
For more than 50 years, NASA and partner agencies have used satellite imagery to map agriculture worldwide with an eye toward global supply and food security.
That technology, however, has largely focused on commodity and row crops.
With the recent launch of a new consortium, dubbed NASA Acres, the focus will expand to encompass more diverse aspects of U.S. agriculture – including specialty crops – and Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell AgriTech will play a lead role, thanks to a $1.4 million grant.
Acres stands for A Climate Resilient Ecosystem Approach to Strengthening U.S. Agriculture. Other members of the consortium include the University of Illinois, Arizona State University, Stanford University, North Carolina State University, University of California–Merced and Michigan State University.
Katie Gold, assistant professor of grape pathology and Yu Jiang, assistant professor of horticulture, will leverage remote sensing, highly innovative robotics and artificial intelligence systems to help growers detect diseases in specialty crops.
“Our goal is to provide growers with accurate, data-driven risk assessments made from remote sensing data so they can more strategically deploy ground resources – such as human scouts and diagnostics – to improve early disease detection,” said Gold.
Gold added that while available suborbital NASA datastreams, such as the Airborne Visible and InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer Next Generation (AVIRIS-NG) allow researchers to detect diseases, this project will allow her and Jiang to take that detection one step further by building more actionable systems for specialty crop growers in preparation for the forthcoming launch of NASA’s hyperspectral satellite Surface Biology and Geology at the end of the decade.
“Integrating NASA satellite sensing with AI systems will enable strategic deployment and adaptation of ground robots and smart sensing networks, enhancing automation and precision in specialty crop production. This will promote a sustainable, equitable and resilient agri-food supply chain,” said Jiang.
NASA Acres builds on the success of NASA Harvest, a globally focused consortium based at the University of Maryland. Alyssa Whitcraft, associate research professor at Maryland and co-founder of NASA Harvest, is director of NASA Acres.
“NASA Acres selected Katie Gold’s project because she and her lab are vanguards for expanding the value of satellite data for specialty crops and for pest and disease early warning and action,” Whitcraft said. “It is our hope that success demonstrated for grapes and apples – which are respectively the second- and third-highest value specialty crops in the nation, and merit their own focus – will also provide a model for pest and disease early detection and management in other agricultural systems.”
Donnell Brown, president of the National Grape Research Alliance, believes Cornell’s work in NASA Acres could revolutionize the industry.
“Katie Gold and Yu Jiang are two of the most inspiring scientists in digital viticulture research in the U.S. today, and we’re thrilled that they were selected to contribute to the NASA Acres consortium, using grape as a model system,” Brown said. “The combination of Katie’s research into impressively accurate maps of pre-symptomatic and/or early-stage grapevine viral disease using aerial hyperspectral sensing and Yu’s efforts to deploy robots, sensors and AI to monitor and predict its spread promise a kind of space-age surveillance system for grape growers seeking to combat disease – not only before it can be seen but before it even arrives. This is a model of sustainability that virtually removes disease from the equation.”
Application to real-world agriculture is a critical component of NASA Acres, and that’s where the research of Steven Wolf, associate professor of natural resources and the environment, will come in.
“The ‘bridge’ between the Gold/Jiang work package and my work package is diversity – i.e., opening up a dialogue and engagement,” said Wolf. “The focus on specialty crops will bring new problems and opportunities into focus for Earth observation researchers and NASA program managers, and the same can be said of my effort to bring new user communities into NASA’s orbit.
“By bringing new perspectives to the table, the way innovation is defined and pursued will change, leading to new social and ecological trajectories.”
Mike Hibbard is a freelancer writer for Cornell AgriTech
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