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UC Merced Event Showcases Ag Technology

About 75 people turned out for the fair learning about how drones and satellites assess farm performance from above and about electronic devices that monitor soil moisture, nutrients in leaves and other aspects of farming.

By John Holland, The Modesto Bee

Driverless vehicles might someday navigate downtown San Francisco, a researcher said Wednesday, so why not San Joaquin Valley orchards?

That idea — remote-guided rigs that carry cameras and other devices for monitoring crop health — was among several discussed at the Agricultural Technology Fair at the University of California, Merced.

“This is to me similar to what the farmer would see if he walked through his orchard row by row,” said Stefano Carpin, an associate engineering professor who studies robotics.

About 75 people turned out for the fair, which also was a chance for UC Merced students to talk with potential employers. They will graduate into a world where drones and satellites assess farm performance from above and where electronic devices keep track of soil moisture, nutrients in leaves and other aspects of farming.

A key need will be “data analytics” to make use of the crop information, said Seana Day Hull of Patterson, director of business development and strategy at AgTech Insight LLC, which is working to bring investors into the field. She also said technology can help reduce food waste, estimated at 40 percent between farm and table.

"Precision agriculture is nothing but a big-data industry." YangQuan Chen, associate professor
YangQuan Chen, another associate engineering professor, said drones have great potential if people follow safety rules for the small, unmanned aircraft. A “melon drone,” for example, looks for slow-growing parts of the patch so extra fertilizer can be applied there.

“Precision agriculture is nothing but a big-data industry,” Chen said, using a term that techies have coined to describe very large sets of information.

The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society hosted the fair with several co-sponsors as part of the university’s 2016 Research Week.

Ted Batkin, retired president of the Citrus Research Board in Visalia, talked about his new venture — treating irrigation water to reduce friction and hence power costs for delivery.

He told of past research efforts in the citrus industry, including detection of psyllids, a major pest. And he noted one that so far has fallen short — a mechanical means of harvesting the fruit. The device could detect when it was ripe, but the robotic hand just can’t pick it cleanly.

“All the juice dropped out,” Batkin said.

A third associate engineering professor, Alberto Cerpa, described his work on reducing water consumption by lawns, which he said cover more acreage than any irrigated crop in the nation. He tested sprinkler heads that can sense the moisture conditions around them and turn on only when needed. They save 23 percent over conventional systems and 12 percent over other advanced systems.

“I started with turf, but I would be interested to hear from the experts in other crops,” Cerpa said.

The sponsors included two based in Modesto — E.&J. Gallo Winery and the Almond Board of California. Other sponsors were from farming, technical and legal fields.

©2016 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.