New AgTech Expo Looks at Rapidly Moving Sector

Tacy Callies Events, Technology

AgTech attendees were treated to technology demonstrations like this sprayer from Everglades Equipment Group that only targets specific weeds with herbicides.

The Gulf Citrus Growers Association and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Southwest Florida Research and Education Center presented the Florida AgTech and AI Expo in Punta Gorda on Dec. 14. The event showcased emerging trends in technology and how some farms are putting ag technology to work in the real world. In addition to an educational program, the event included an exhibit area with technology suppliers. Live demonstrations were given for some products.

Scott Angle, University of Florida senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of UF/IFAS, was the keynote speaker at the event. He said the University of Florida is positioning itself to be a leader in the nation when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). The state legislature is funding the initiative, and university leadership is fully on board.

“We have said we will be the AI university for the country. And we are now. We are already there,” Angle said. “Every student that goes to the University of Florida will take classes in AI. Our research has become more and more focused on this area. We now have more than 100 faculty members who are exclusively devoted to AI. And we have about 20 to 30 people in agriculture research who are really focused on AI.”

Scott Angle told attendees the University of Florida has become a leader in artificial intelligence.

To establish itself as an AI hub of activity, Angle said funding has been allocated to build the Center for Applied Artificial Intelligence in Agriculture at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. The Florida Legislature funded $12 million toward the center last year and another $19 million will be requested this legislative session. The facility will be the first of its kind in the nation.

Another initiative that will deploy AI science is the new Plant Transformation Center, which recently opened on the Gainesville campus. The center will use AI and advanced gene editing techniques to breed new plants with various beneficial traits. The first objective of the center will be developing citrus varieties tolerant or resistant to HLB.

There was a common theme presented in other presentations during the educational program: Researchers and technology providers need to ground their work and development in the problems growers are trying to solve.

For citrus, there were several technologies demonstrated to help growers get a better handle on tree counts and nutrient needs using aerial images via drones or airplanes. Grove health assessment has been greatly complicated by HLB. New research aims to create programs that can utilize satellite images to create maps for this information as well.

In addition, there also were presentations on drones being utilized to spray citrus groves. This technology is in use now. While it will not replace aerial applicators, it can be useful for spot spraying and more targeted applications.

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Frank Giles