Florida orange juice is getting a taste of AI.
With the Sunshine State’s $9 billion annual citrus crops plagued by a fruit-souring disease, researchers and businesses are tapping AI to help rescue the nation’s largest producer of orange juice.
University of Florida researchers are developing AI applications for agriculture. And the technology — computer vision for smart sprayers — is now being licensed and deployed in pilot tests by CCI, an agricultural equipment company.
The efforts promise to help farmers combat what’s known as “citrus greening,” the disease brought on by bacteria from the Asian citrus psyllid insect hitting farms worldwide.
Citrus greening causes patchy leaves and green fruit and can quickly decimate orchards.
The agricultural equipment supplier has seen farmers lose one-third of the orchard acreage in Florida from the onslaught of citrus greening.
“It’s having a huge impact on the state of Florida, California, Brazil, China, Mexico — the entire world is battling a citrus crisis,” said Yiannis Ampatzidis, assistant professor at UF’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
Fertilizing Precision Agriculture
Ampatzidis works with a team of researchers focused on automation in agriculture. They develop AI applications to forecast crop yields and reduce pesticide use. The team’s image recognition models are run on the Jetson AI platform in the field for inference.
“The goal is to use Jetson Xavier to detect the size of the tree and the leaf density to instantly optimize the flow of the nozzles on sprayers for farming,” said Ampatzidis. “It also allows us to count fruit density, predict yield, and study water usage and pH levels.”
The growing popularity of organic produce and the adoption of more sustainable farming practices have drawn a field of startups plowing AI for benefits to businesses and the planet. John Deere-owned Blue River, FarmWise, SeeTree and Smart Ag are just some of the agriculture companies adopting NVIDIA GPUs for training and inference.
Like many, UF and CCI are developing applications for deployment on the NVIDIA Jetson edge AI platform. And UF has wider ambitions for fostering AI development that benefits the state.
Last July, UF and NVIDIA hatched plans to build one of the world’s fastest AI supercomputers in academia, delivering 700 petaflops of processing power. Built with NVIDIA DGX systems and NVIDIA Mellanox networking, HiPerGator AI is now online to power UF’s precision agriculture research.
The new supercomputer was made possible by a $25 million donation from alumnus and NVIDIA founder Chris Malachowsky and $25 million in hardware, software, training and services from NVIDIA.
UF is a member of the NVIDIA Applied Research Accelerator Program, which supports applied research in coordination with businesses relying on NVIDIA platforms for GPU-accelerated application deployments.
Deploying Robotic Sprayers
Citrus greening has required farmers to act quickly to remove diseased trees to prevent its advances. Many orchards now have gaps in their rows of trees. As a result, conventional sprayers that apply agrochemicals uniformly along entire rows will often overspray, wasting resources and creating unnecessary environmental contamination.
UF researchers developed a sensor system of lidar and cameras for sprayers used in orchards. These sensors feed into the NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier, which can process split-second inference on whether the sprayer is facing a tree to spray or not, enabling autonomous spraying.
The system can adjust in real time to turn off or on the application of crop protection products or fertilizers as well as adjust the amount sprayed based on the plant’s size, said Kieth Hollingsworth, a CCI sales specialist.
“It cuts down on spraying waste overspray and on wasted material that ultimately gets washed into the groundwater. We can also predict yield based on the oranges we see on the tree,” said Hollingsworth.
Commercializing AgTech AI
CCI began working with UF eight years ago. In the past couple of years, the company has been working with the university to upgrade its infrared laser-based spraying system to one with AI.
And customers are coming to CCI for novel ways to attack the problem, said Hollingsworth.
Working with NVIDIA’s Applied Research Accelerator Program, CCI has gotten a boost with technical guidance on Jetson Xavier that has sped its development.
Citrus industry veteran Hollingsworth says AI is a useful tool in the field to wield against the crop disease that has taken some of the sweetness out of orange juice over the years.
“People have no idea how complex of a crop oranges are to grow and what it takes to produce and squeeze the juice that goes into a glass of orange juice,” said Hollingsworth.
Academic researchers can apply now for the Applied Research Accelerator Program.