MSU officially opens the country’s first Institute of Agricultural Autonomy

Contact: James Carskadon

Mississippi State Oct. 26 celebrated the official opening of the university’s new Institute of Agricultural Autonomy. The panel included, from left, Scott Willard, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is also director of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station; agricultural engineer and distinguished guest of the panel Kit Franklin from the UK; MSU Institute for Agricultural Autonomy Director Alex Thomasson; and Jason Keith, dean of the Bagley College of Engineering. (Photo by David Ammon)

STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State University is building a farm of the future.

MSU officials on Thursday [Oct. 26] the Institute of Agricultural Autonomy was officially opened – the country’s first and only interdisciplinary research center focused on autonomous technologies in order to increase farm precision and efficiency.

The Institute for Agricultural Autonomy builds on and expands MSU’s long-standing precision agriculture efforts and history of innovation in the field. The institute is a hub for researchers across campus interested in technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and remote sensing that can increase precision, production and profitability in agriculture.

Alex Thomasson, director of the Institute for Agricultural Autonomy and head of MSU’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said autonomous technologies can reduce the impact of labor shortages by making farm workers more efficient with new systems.

“Autonomous systems increase the productivity of a single farm worker so that they can oversee multiple machines and operations at the same time,” Thomasson said. “In general, the aim of the institute is economic development. We want to attract agricultural technology companies, we want to conduct research that will lead to technology-based start-up companies. We want to create a new workforce that has the opportunity to work in this new world of robotics, mechatronics and computer coding. I really hope Mississippi becomes the Silicon Valley of agricultural autonomy.

MSU researchers are working on various agricultural autonomy projects
MSU scientists are working on a variety of projects to improve agricultural precision, production and profitability. The university’s new Institute for Agricultural Autonomy expands years of precision agriculture efforts. (Photo by David Ammon)

The institute’s research infrastructure includes a 4,800-square-foot Pace Seed Technology Laboratory and a five-acre Autonomous Acres test site at MSU’s RR Foil Plant Science Research Center. The institute is jointly managed by the university’s Office of Research and Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine, with support from the Bagley College of Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and other MSU institutes, research centers and departments.

Julie Jordan, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development, noted MSU’s collaborative and interdisciplinary research culture with existing research areas and faculty efforts poised to accelerate the impact of the new institute.

“Our centers and institutes are designed to bring people and disciplines together to solve problems,” Jordan said. “That’s where the magic happens and that’s where we can really accelerate the work that’s happening in classrooms, labs and at the basic research level and take it out into the world to solve problems.”

For decades, National Science Foundation rankings have ranked MSU among the nation’s top universities for agricultural research and development spending. MSU is ranked 11th in the latest rankings. Keith Coble, vice president of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine, said MSU’s research has continually evolved and modernized to stay at the forefront of innovation.

“At MSU, we’re building a new supercomputing center on the doorstep overlooking North Farm, and I think that’s symbolic of where we are today,” Coble said. “Agriculture in its basic form is the same as it always has been. However, we are in a world where we have to change and adapt. Competitors have put the US on their agenda to outdo us on agribusiness policy. I think this institute is part of what we need to do to maintain our leadership not only nationally but also internationally.

Examples of MSU’s agricultural autonomy research include using robots to harvest crops such as cotton. The interdisciplinary team is also investigating how cows respond to robot herders. In the years leading up to the institute’s founding, a campus-wide team of about 40 researchers formed a working group on agricultural autonomy.

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