St. Louis, Mo. — The National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes program awarded a 5 year, $20 million grant to explore foundational AI goals and innovative uses of AI to develop a prototype autonomous “farm of the future.” The project was developed in anticipation of a world in which low cost AI-driven systems enable breeders and farmers to achieve large improvements in yields and profitability with minimal or even positive environmental impacts.

The project, AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management and Sustainability (AIFARMS) is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and The National Science Foundation (NSF). The Institute will be centered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and its 40 member team will work to advance fundamental AI research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation and intuitive human-robot interaction. This is aimed at solving major agricultural challenges including labor shortages, enhancing efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, improving environmental resilience of crops, and addressing the need to safeguard soil health. 

Todd Mockler, PhD, member and Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator at the Danforth Center will co-lead a research team applying AI approaches to extract plant phenotypes, from sensor data sets in order to accelerate crop improvement. This will focus on enhancing nitrogen and water use efficiency in major row crops such as corn and soy.

“Crop and livestock production are extremely complex systems that feed billions of people despite tight cost constraints and chronic risks from weather and other external challenges. I'm excited to be part of a fantastic team of colleagues in diverse disciplines ranging from artificial intelligence to robotics to plant biology,” said Mockler. “The AIFARMS institute is poised to address fundamental challenges facing world agriculture while improving the resilience of crops and the sustainability of crop and livestock production systems.” 

The AIFARMS Institute is led by Vikram Adve, PhD, principal investigator and Donald B. Gillies professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois’ Grainger College of Engineering. The institute combines research expertise with strong education and outreach programs in digital agriculture to grow a diverse workforce with AI skills. It will reach rural and other underserved populations and create a global clearinghouse to foster community-wide collaboration in AI-driven agricultural research. AIFARMS also features a new joint Computer Science+Agriculture degree to train the next generation of scientists in AI-driven agriculture research. 

In addition to UIUC and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the project team includes scientists from the University of Chicago, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Argonne National Laboratory. 

“This major Federal investment in next-generation agriculture signals our commitment to keeping American agricultural innovation on the leading edge of global science,” said USDA-NIFA Acting Director Parag Chitnis. “These future-focused centers of innovation will use the latest techniques from all corners of science including molecular science, engineering and robotics to seek solutions for myriad challenges facing agriculture, from crop improvement and animal welfare to labor shortages and farm safety.”

About the National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes program

The NAIRI is a joint effort between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture was created in response to the White House’s 2019 update to the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan, which aims to provide support for AI research that focuses on impacting and improving society. 


About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment, and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter