The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has announced $4.5 million in grants to spur the development and use of robots in American agriculture production. The five grants are part of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), a federal research partnership that includes NIFA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“We have seen tremendous advancement in robotic technology over the past five years – advancements now make it possible for robots and humans to work together collaboratively,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director. “As agriculture is a labor-intensive industry, these new technologies have the potential to make the process more efficient, saving producers time and money, which ultimately benefit consumers.”

NIFA’s role in the NRI focuses on research that enhances food production, processing and distribution that benefit consumers and rural communities. Examples of technologies to be investigated include:

  • Automated systems for inspection, sorting, processing, or handling of animal or plant products (including forest products) in post-harvest, processing or product distribution environments.
  • Improved robotics for inspection, sorting, and handling of plants and flowers in greenhouses and nurseries or for handling (e.g., sorting, vaccinating, deworming) large numbers of live animals.
  • Multi-modal and rapid sensing systems for detecting microbial contamination, defects, ripeness, physical damage, size, shape and other quality attributes of plant or animal products (including forest products) or for monitoring air or water quality. 

Additionally, projects are expected to engage with industry and academia to identify research needs and provide training for the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists.

NIFA’s Fiscal Year 2013 awards include:

  • University of California, Davis, Calif., $1,123,463. This project will develop relatively small, inexpensive robots to aid in human harvesting of strawberries.
  • University of Central Florida, Orlando, Fla., $1,210,602. This project focuses on the integration of agricultural robots, low altitude aerial imaging and advanced sensor technologies to enhance early disease and stress detection in fruits and vegetables, including citrus greening.
  • University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., $660,988. The project will develop advanced control methods for robotic harvesting of citrus.
  • University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Neb., $956,210. This project focuses on the development of semi-automated aerial vehicles capable of sampling water in remote areas.
  • Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., $548,735. This project will develop robotic technology for tree fruit harvesting.

The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work alongside or cooperatively with people. The purpose of this program is the development of this next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. More information is available at: