Posted: March 30, 2023

Harnessing Emerging Technologies for a New Digital Age.

Imagine a dairy farmer walking through a barn. A red exclamation point -- a hologram -- appears over one of the cows, indicating an abnormal temperature, heart rate or activity level. The farmer wears an augmented reality headset. Through this technology, she can access a wealth of information in real time as she looks over her livestock. The ability to quickly identify sick animals could reduce veterinary bills and ensure high-performing cattle, according to researchers at the forefront of a new digital age in farming.

Agriculture is transforming, and experts at Penn State Extension and researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences are focusing on applying cutting-edge technology to traditional farming practices. The college's emerging and advanced technology initiative is designed to empower individuals, businesses and communities across the food system with innovative technology and connected digital infrastructure -- tools that can support data-driven decisions for efficiency, growth, sustainability, competitiveness and profitability.

"Technology innovation has driven agriculture for the last 150 years, from steel plows to hybrid corn to genetic improvements that allow cattle to produce more meat or milk and crops to resist pests," said Jim Ladlee, Penn State Extension state program leader for emerging technology. "The tools we will develop in the near future will offer that same opportunity for people to participate and utilize technology to their benefit."

Expanding Broadband Access

Access to reliable, high-speed internet service is considered a basic need by a growing number of Americans, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed how we work, attend school, receive health care and connect with others.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 13% of Pennsylvanians living in rural areas cannot access the internet at broadband speeds. Researchers at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications estimate that this percentage is much higher. For those living in underserved areas, slow connections are more than just an annoyance. Outdated or nonexistent broadband infrastructure can dramatically impact one's ability to leverage new opportunities or, in some cases, function in daily life.

The FCC, through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, has allocated $20.4 billion to expand broadband in unserved rural areas across the nation. A partnership between Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission helped funnel nearly $369 million of that funding toward new investment in Pennsylvania's broadband infrastructure.

A crucial tool for internet service providers is an interactive broadband access map created by the two organizations. The map helps providers estimate their project costs in delivering services to locations without broadband. Over the next decade, 13 internet service providers will carry out the task of providing broadband access to 327,000 households throughout the commonwealth.

Building on this success, in November 2022, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority partnered with Penn State Extension to promote broadband deployment equity. Extension will develop and update state broadband maps to help stakeholders identify unserved broadband areas -- a vital factor in determining the state's portion of the $42.5 billion of federal funding available for high-speed internet expansion through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program.

Augmented Agriculture

According to experts with Penn State Extension, augmented reality could strengthen workforce development, veterinary services and biosecurity. Automakers, airlines and the military already use augmented reality for technician training and workforce development.

"I grew up on a farm," Ladlee said. "Finding qualified, well-trained labor who knew how to handle animals and agricultural equipment was a challenge."

The technology could assist farmers in everything from crop management to equipment use.

"How we feed animals is incredibly important," Ladlee said. "Something as simple as feed placement -- a new person with limited experience might place the feed too far away. With augmented reality, you can show them via hologram the line to keep the wheel on so that the feed gets to the right spot for the cattle to eat."

Improving animal health is another potential application. Pennsylvania faces a shortage of large-animal veterinarians. The college is investigating the applications of a variety of technologies, with augmented reality as the base, including allowing practitioners to diagnose problems remotely.

"Remote visits could drastically lower the price for producers," said Daniel Dotterer, a Clinton County sheep farmer. "If a visit costs me $50 instead of $500, I'm going to call the vet a lot more."

Remote veterinary services could allow vets to see more patients, spend less time driving and create healthier environments for animals overall, Ladlee noted.

The technology could be applied to larger-scale health crises. With concerns over highly pathogenic avian influenza, Ladlee is sometimes asked: Can you help farmers and emergency professionals using augmented reality? Can you help them visualize the biosecurity plan?

"The technology is there," Ladlee said. "How do we help bring it into agriculture? Our goal is to offer tools that will create a brighter future for agricultural producers in Pennsylvania."

'Hands-on' Farming Experience via VR

While augmented reality enhances a real-world scene, virtual reality creates an immersive virtual environment. The possibilities for workforce development are immense. For example, an immersive, 360-degree video could teach someone how to milk a cow.

"It's like you are there milking cows," said Adrian Barragan, extension veterinarian and assistant research professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences. "That's the neat component. Instead of watching a video of someone telling you what to do, it's like you are there doing it."

To harness the power of virtual reality, Barragan joined forces with colleagues Jaime García Prudencio, assistant teaching professor in the Spanish for Agriculture program, and Justin Brown, assistant teaching professor in veterinary and biomedical sciences. In partnership with Penn State's Teaching and Learning with Technology, the professors created several immersive learning videos to simulate realistic scenarios and hands-on experiences.

A strength of the technology, Barragan explained, is the ability to provide initial training without exposing workers to mistakes or injury. Virtual reality allows for remote training. A farm worker can receive instruction without having to leave the farm.

Many extension dairy workforce training videos are produced in both English and Spanish. "A large percentage of dairy workers in Pennsylvania are Spanish-speaking," Barragan said. "And most of the Spanish-speaking workers are milkers."

Offering resources in Spanish helps expand the worldwide outreach of Penn State Extension. Barragan leads the "Applied Dairy Management in Spanish" extension webinar series, developed with former extension educator Mauricio Rosales. The series focuses on management practices to improve animal production and welfare. Attendees tune in from around the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Europe.

Educating the public through innovative methods is a priority for Penn State Extension. At the 2023 Pennsylvania Farm Show, visitors to the extension exhibit had the opportunity to take a virtual reality tour of a private water well. The extension water team collaborated with Penn State's Center for Immersive Experiences to take visitors on a virtual trip 145 feet below ground to see a water well and how it works. Wearing a virtual reality headset viewer, the user moves to different points underground to view components such as a pitless adapter, the water table and the well pump, and hear a brief narration describing what they are seeing.

"Our hope is that with increased understanding of well construction and function, private well users will be able to make informed decisions regarding the maintenance and safety of their water supply," said Susan Boser, water resources extension educator.

Boosting Businesses With Blockchain

Penn State Extension, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Smeal College of Business recently distributed a survey to Pennsylvania produce farmers about blockchain, with hopes of potentially deploying the emerging technology to strengthen wholesale farm businesses and give Pennsylvania growers a competitive advantage. The surveys collected producer input on the opportunities and challenges of blockchain technology.

Simply put, blockchain is a digital system that provides secure storage for data. It can record transactions and track information between businesses and assets across supply chains. The technology first gained attention with the launch of cryptocurrencies, but that is just one of its many applications.

Ladlee suggested that blockchains could automate contracts and payment processes, enable the traceability of information in the supply chain to improve food safety and provide consumers with product-origin information.

"We're looking for avenues to put control of information about the farm in the hands of the farmer," Ladlee said.

He pointed out that Pennsylvania has the most direct-to-consumer establishments in the country.

"Think about all the farm markets around here," he said. "Blockchain could help growers share their certifications or verify other critical information directly with consumers through a secure platform."

The digital record captured by blockchain potentially could trace an apple back to the field of harvest. This transparency could build customer trust by showing how animals or plants were cared for -- and lead to greater agricultural literacy, Ladlee noted.

Penn State Extension soon will launch an on-farm blockchain demonstration to show how this technology can help safeguard animal health.

Improving Yield with Automation and Robotics

Could robotic systems improve the yield and quality of apples? Could sensor-based applications reduce the amount of water and chemicals needed for crops? These questions drive the work of researchers at Penn State, including Long He, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

Housed at Penn State's Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, He researches automation and robotics in agriculture. A major project centers on robotic crop-load management. Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the U.S. for apple production.

When a tree contains too many apples, the quality of the fruits can diminish, resulting in a lot of small, low-value apples. Pruning and green-fruit thinning -- the process of discarding excess fruitlets in early summer -- are important aspects of apple production. These techniques can help increase the remaining fruit size and quality.

Manual thinning is a labor-intensive task, and the apple industry faces a shrinking labor force. Working toward the goal of robotic, automated green-fruit thinning, He's research group utilizes deep-learning algorithms, machine vision systems and robotic arms as they test new methods.

Other areas that could benefit from automation are pest and disease management and irrigation, He explained. Precision pest and disease management employs cameras and sensors to detect the location of an infection or infestation and applies chemicals only where necessary. With more precise treatment, farmers can reduce pesticide-related input costs and potential environmental impacts. According to He, precision sprayers can decrease chemical use by 50%.

Sensor-based precision irrigation systems also can help the environment by saving water. Sensors monitor how much water is in the soil. As part of his extension outreach, He teaches orchard growers how to access this data. By learning the soil conditions, growers can make data-driven decisions for irrigation. In research center trials, the precision irrigation system saved 20-30% of water compared to conventional irrigation.

Developing Leadership in Emerging Technology

By 2050, the world will need to produce 70% more food to feed a population of nearly 10 billion people, according to estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

By exploring the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and robotics, experts at Penn State are tapping into technologies that could help ensure food security for decades to come. For He, the key to increasing crop yield lies in automation and sustainable technology.

"If you don't need as much human labor, you could expand the operation and produce more food," He said. "Eco-friendly technology can help us maintain the quality of the soil and other natural resources."

Producing more high-quality food is just the beginning. The impacts of innovative technologies can reach across the agricultural system, according to Ladlee.

"We start with producers and farmers, but these technologies apply to farm markets, food-based businesses, food processors, timber and environmental conversations," he said.

Technology could impact workforce development in astounding ways, he added. The 360-degree milking videos allow for immersive learning, but Barragan imagines the possibilities for training workers through interactive experiences.

"Twenty years down the road, I would like to see people use these milking videos with virtual goggles and be able to move their hands and milk a cow," he said. "They could see if the cow has mastitis, for example, and troubleshoot these issues. The interactive component would allow them to not only gain the knowledge, but also the skills."

Other Penn State faculty members are leaping on the potential of emerging technology. Last spring, when Ladlee asked faculty for ideas on applications for augmented reality, the proposals poured in -- everything from a virtual tour of an on-campus facility to marketing agricultural products using holograms.

"This is practical and producer-driven, with a focus on technologies of most value to the producer to create efficiency, competitiveness, growth, profitability and sustainability," said Ladlee.

The breadth of potential applications of these technologies requires a diversity of expertise to realize that potential, noted Blair Siegfried, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Pennsylvania Agricultural Experiment Station.

"Because of the vast and diverse expertise at Penn State and our tradition of multidisciplinary collaboration, we are well-positioned to develop innovative applications for education and training as well as to increase agricultural profitability, promote nutritional security and protect our natural resources," he said. "And, importantly, we have the capacity to deliver these technologies to our citizens."

By Alexandra McLaughlin
Illustations by Stuart Bradford