USDA Awards $3 Million for Robotics Research through Joint Agency Initiative

Tuesday, December 22, 2015
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) today announced $3 million in grants to advance the use of co-robots that benefit and assist stakeholders in America’s production agriculture field. These three grants are part of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), a federal research partnership that includes NIFA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Defense, and Department of Energy.
The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the U.S. that work alongside or cooperatively with people. This program aims to develop the next generation of robotics, advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.
Grants awarded in fiscal year 2015 are:
  • University of California, Davis, Calif., $1,069,598 – The goal of this project is to develop theoretical and technological tools that will enable the design, optimization, prototyping and field-testing of consistently high-throughput, cost-effective mechanized harvesting systems for modern orchards.
  • University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minn., $914,565 – This project aims to develop planning algorithms for robots to autonomously operate in complex environments such as apple orchards so that Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) robot systems can be used in automation tasks involving specialty crops.
  • University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa., $556,726 – This project utilizes swarms of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that operate with human scouts to research solutions for specialty crop farmers, improving how farmers can obtain timely estimates of yields, diagnose crop stress, and detect pests.
The program has also announced the availability of funding for fiscal year 2016, with applications due by March 7, 2016. More information about this request for applications (RFA) can be found on the NSF website.
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 invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges. To learn more about NIFA’s impact on agricultural science, visit or follow us on Twitter #NIFAimpacts.