Mississippi university creates institute to put more robots, technology working on the farm

Published 10:06 pm Thursday, June 15, 2023

Self-driving tractors. Robots herding cattle and picking cotton. Drones scouting for insect pests. Creating the technology and road maps that define tomorrow’s agricultural landscape is happening today at Mississippi State University.

This leading-edge research now has a concentrated home—the university’s new Agricultural Autonomy Institute—a joint effort helmed by the MSU Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering.

“The global agricultural autonomy market is expected to more than double in the coming years from $5 billion in 2021 to $12 billion by 2026,” said Alex Thomasson, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “MSU has a tradition of excellence in agriculture research and the advanced technologies that are driving agricultural autonomy. That leadership position will continue to grow as we launch the first institute in the U.S. dedicated to this emerging field.”

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In the short term, the MSU Agricultural Autonomy Institute aims to minimize the impacts of farm labor shortages while maximizing on-farm precision and efficiency to enhance profitability. Long-term goals include developing sensing and analytic capabilities of autonomous machines to make input decisions in the field at the level of a square meter or even a single plant.

“The MSU Agricultural Autonomy Institute aims to make Mississippi a hub for the autonomous industry by attracting manufacturers, advancing research and start-ups, and developing and training a workforce in the state,” Thomasson said.

For nearly three years, Thomasson has led a cross-college ag autonomy working group of about 40 faculty, including the two colleges and various university centers and institutes, in addition to conducting his own ag autonomy research.

“Agricultural autonomy automates agricultural practices including planting, harvesting and post-harvest processing. It also expedites ag research by automating data-collection processes once done manually,” explained Thomasson, who also is the department’s William B. and Sherry Berry Endowed Chair. “This allows us to increase productivity and profitability at the field level; complete tedious, challenging tasks where workers are difficult to find; and answer research questions faster and more efficiently.”

Scott Willard, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said MSU is an ideal fit as a leader in agricultural autonomy on a broader scale.

“As Mississippi’s leading research university and one of the nation’s top 100 research institutions, MSU has consistently developed and expanded technologies to enhance agricultural production in the state,” Willard said. “We have been innovators in precision agriculture since the concept’s inception and our expertise, talent and proven track record uniquely position the university to be a leader in agricultural autonomy.”

Jason Keith, dean of the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering, said the institute is poised to be an economic engine for the state of Mississippi, thanks to generous financial assistance from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation.

“I’m excited for the work being done at Mississippi State University in ag autonomy. The Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation has been a strong supporter of Mississippi State University and the Bagley College of Engineering for decades, as we strive to promote economic growth in the state. This gift will provide seed funds for our researchers as they work to find long-term support from industry, along with state and federal funding sources.”

Thomasson will serve as the institute’s founding director, and Madison Dixon, former research director of the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, has joined the team as associate director.