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Will Artificial Intelligence and robotics usher in an era of sustainable precision agriculture?

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Across midwestern farms, if Girish Chowdhary has his way, farmers will someday release beagle-sized robots into their fields like a pack of hounds flushing pheasant. The robots, he says, will scurry in the cool shade beneath a wide diversity of plants, pulling weeds, planting cover crops, diagnosing plant infections, and gathering data to help farmers optimize their farms. Chowdhary, a researcher at the University of Illinois, works surrounded by corn, one of the most productive monocultures in the world. In the United States, the corn industry was valued at $82.6 billion in 2021, but it -- like almost every other segment of the agricultural economy -- faces daunting problems, including changing weather patterns, environmental degradation, severe labor shortages, and the rising cost of key supplies, or inputs: herbicides, pesticides, and seed. Agribusiness as a whole is betting that the world has reached the tipping point where desperate need caused by a growing population, the economic realities of conventional farming, and advancing technology converge to require something called precision agriculture, which aims to minimize inputs and the costs and environmental problems that go with them. No segment of agriculture is without its passionate advocates of robotics and artificial intelligence as solutions to, basically, all the problems facing farmers today.