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WSU Precision Ag ranks with world’s top 25

Precision-ag researcher Manoj Karkee holds up a flying drone in a vineyard.
Manoj Karkee, precision agriculture researcher at Washington State University, holds a flying drone designed to deter pest birds from blueberry and wine grape plots. WSU is ranked among the top 25 university precision ag programs in the world.

Industry professionals have named Washington State University one of the 25 best colleges in the world for precision agriculture.

At WSU, the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) and the Agricultural Technology and Production Management (AgTM) academic program help solve one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today: Labor.

Global significance

Editors of the journal Precision Ag Professional jointly ranked CPAAS and AgTM among the top precision agriculture programs at four-year colleges and universities. The list was based on a survey of program leaders that weighed reputations in education, research and extension. This new ranking aids WSU’s Drive to 25 effort to join the world’s top public research universities.

“Our faculty and students are making a big difference in the future of agriculture,” said Qin Zhang, professor and director of CPAAS. “We’re developing the next generation of machine vision, big-data techniques, automation, and robotics, giving farmers, industry and scientists ways to grow valuable crops more safely and efficiently.”

Right tech, right time

Farm work is hard, seasonal, and often short-term, while farm labor is increasingly costly and hard to find. Precision agriculture makes farming more accurate and precise, using new technology to conserve labor and other important resources, like water and fertilizer.

“Everything begins with a machine,” said Manoj Karkee, a CPAAS faculty member and engineer who develops apple-picking robots and intelligent systems that detect when crops need water.

“It’s about making machines that can not only do our work for us, but do it the right way at the right time,” Karkee added. “It’s a robot that picks only ripe apples, or sensing and data analysis techniques that know when a plant needs water or fertilizer.”

Precision ag, combined with mechanization and automation, is the key to reduce labor use, make field workers safer, and gives farmers the tools to cut use of chemicals, water, and other important resources.

“It’s an especially important technology in crop science,” says Karkee. Precision-ag practices let crop scientists and breeders use sensors to understand variability in their crops, skipping the time-consuming process of monitoring and measuring research plots of wheat, for example, by hand. That can cut months off the process of developing hardier and healthier plants, ultimately helping feed a growing planet.

Tomorrow’s leaders

Students in WSU’s Ag Tech and Production Management major how to mesh precision agriculture, electronics and data skills with crop science, finance and real estate to run the farms of the future.

“We’re training the future farm managers, scientists and leaders who’ll grow tomorrow’s crops in precise and better ways,” says Jim Durfey, AgTM program leader. “As a consequence, our graduates are in high demand. For every student who walks out of here with a diploma, there are two jobs waiting for them nationwide.”

“This ranking shows the importance of WSU advances in precision agriculture on a world stage,” said Zhang. “Credit goes to all of our students, researchers and faculty, who bring tomorrow’s agriculture practices to light, today.”

WSU students deploy a soil-mapping cart at a research field.
Washington State University students learn to use a high-tech soil-mapping cart at the university’s Spillman Agronomy Farm research site. WSU precision-ag practices let crop scientists use sensors to understand variability in their crops (WSU Photo).