Brandon Bunn flying a drone in a field

Drones and robots join plows and tractors in farmers' toolsheds

Hovering between the clouds and the cows, Wyatt Bunn keeps a stealthy eye on his family’s cattle.

“When I fly by, they don’t notice it, but if I get down too low, they do,” said the third-generation Pulaski County farmer as he guided a tiny quadcopter drone from hundreds of yards away.

“It’s just fun,” said the 10-year-old pilot.

Using a tablet connected to the drone’s remote control, Wyatt surveys the herd, checking for injured or lost animals.

“Wyatt is able to do before school what usually takes us an hour to do,” said Doug Bunn, Wyatt’s grandfather. “He’ll take the drone and check all the cattle. He’ll do it in about 10 minutes, and he can even zoom in on them enough to read the ear tag.”

Keeping an eye from the sky on 600-plus cattle is just one example of how the Bunn family uses advanced technology to manage their 1,000-acre farming operation in Dublin, Virginia.

Although tapping into the technology trend isn’t a new concept for individuals and families in the agriculture industry, the opportunities for connectivity from the field directly to the research lab may lead to game-changing innovations for growers around the globe and right here in Virginia.

According to the Bunns, deciding to add some sophisticated digital devices to the more traditional tools of their trade grew out of their relationship with the Pulaski County office of Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“The Extension service lets us know about lots of things that we really don’t know about,” Doug Bunn said. “When I first got into farming, cabs on tractors and air conditioning were the big things, and we didn’t have that. Now, you know, they’re coming out with drones that I think will eventually have sprayers on them and will go out and identify a weed on their own.”

The SmartFarm
Innovation Network

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates the need for a 70-percent worldwide increase in crop production by 2050 and with only about a five-percent increase in farmable land. The impending need calls for an intensification of crop production, as well as an increased stewardship of natural resources, and leans on technology to produce those results.

On the local farm, that translates to providing opportunities to expand from cows and plows to include drones, global positioning systems (GPS), and wearable exoskeletons. It means embracing tools that capture big data and leaning on skilled researchers to translate and communicate information across the commonwealth in real time. It means working hand-in-hand with producers of all levels to discover practical applications for innovations and research that will allow farmers to work smarter, longer, and with a better quality of life.

And it means developing the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

“For years, we have had in place an extensive network of people and programs around the commonwealth between our Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, our local Extension offices, and the university,” said Alan Grant, dean of the college. “The SmartFarm Innovation Network will collaboratively streamline and expedite our research, workforce development, and outreach in a way that will boost our largest industries – agriculture and forestry – and position them as global leaders in solving not only today’s most pressing issues, but the issues of tomorrow as well.”

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  • The Bunn family with drone in a field

    The Bunn family use drones daily as part of their farming operation.

  • Song Li and students with robot

    Song Li and his students drive a robot through a crop to measure nutrients and growth.

With about 120 interconnected locations that reach every corner of the state, the Virginia Tech-led SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide faster data; allow for real-time, geographically specific decision-making; and streamline statewide collaboration. The platform will allow researchers and industry leaders to weave together what happens in the fields and forests with emerging technologies in areas that range from biodesign and artificial intelligence (AI) to cybersecurity. And it provides a fertile ground for applying the cybersecurity and data science advancements generating from Virginia Tech’s growth in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area and the historic launch of the Innovation Campus, as well as the revolutionary biomedical work of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.

The SmartFarm Innovation Network is expected to push limits and challenge the status quo in order to leverage Virginia Tech’s strengths in ways that empower the commonwealth’s agricultural industries and farming communities to solve the needs of tomorrow.

“When you think about what’s happening around the world with climate change, urbanization, and related issues, you wonder, how do we help producers evolve to address these issues?” Grant said. “By working together, we’re going to find ways to prepare people to deal with these emerging problems, while at the same time use the network as a resource to prepare students to go out into the real world and become global leaders in solving those problems.”

Fertile ground
for advancement

Agriculture and forestry combine to make up what is by far Virginia’s largest industry, with a joint annual economic impact of more than $91 billion and more than 440,000 jobs, according to 2017-18 figures from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In April 2018, stakeholders from across the commonwealth gathered at the Virginia Agriculture and Natural Resource Summit to discuss the challenges facing Virginia’s agricultural industry and workforce.

During the two-day event, participants endorsed a plan that would develop an infrastructure to access Virginia Tech’s resources and expertise, as well as provide a platform for real-world utilization. By streamlining the connections and programing on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, the 11 strategically located Agricultural Research and Extension Centers and the extensive VCE network, the SmartFarm Innovation Network will create a statewide incubator of data and applications.

Access to such information is important for companies like Novozymes Biological Inc. in Salem, Virginia, which is working to develop microorganisms that will optimize a crop’s ability to absorb nutrients, increasing both productivity and sustainability.


“The SmartFarm Innovation Network will collaboratively streamline and expedite our research, workforce development, and outreach in a way that will boost our largest industries – agriculture and forestry.”

-Alan Grant, dean of the college


“This is really an application of big data and data science agriculture at home, just like we are developing in other parts of the world,” said Chris McDowell ’92, head of operations for Novozymes. “The SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide the infrastructure and methodologies to run really meaningful experiments, get even more data, and discover how to leverage it to best improve agriculture.”

In addition to engaging researchers, the network will tap into the university’s growing population of students who are skilled in global system sciences, artificial intelligence, and data analytics. This encourages diversity of perspective and transfers fresh ideas to the network while equipping students with the information-gathering and problem-solving skills required by real-world employers.

One such project, officially announced in June, connects the college with weather-intelligence provider WeatherSTEM. The partnership, which includes each of the 11 ARECs as well as the Urban Horticulture and Turf Grass Centers in Blacksburg, will produce real-time, geographically pinpointed forecasts. Automatically uploaded to the WeatherLink Cloud, the information is accessible both online and via a mobile app. This provides producers, residents, researchers, and members of the public with up-to-the-minute weather information, including skycam images and weather alerts about the timing and location of such phenomena as lightning.

“For researchers who are involved in analyzing weather conditions and patterns through computer-simulated modeling, retrieving data from multiple sources in various locations across the state is critical to understanding those patterns,” said Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean for research and graduate studies.

Sowing seeds
of research

Across the SmartFarm Innovation Network, many Virginia Tech researchers are excited about the potential impact of having their work elevated and expanded across the state.

“It’s the type of program that’s kind of limitless,” said Robin White, an assistant professor whose work has focused on the cross-section of data and animal science for the past five years.

Working with colleagues in the College of Engineering at the Middleburg AREC, White plans to merge data from radio-transmitting halters on horses and cattle with information from sensors planted in the animals’ pastures. This sensor network provides authentic data, without any type of human or external interference, which are transmitted to the cloud where they can be accessed for use in animal behavior studies and to analyze the impact of herds on the environment in real time.

“This will help us better understand how livestock interact with their broader ecosystem,” said White, adding that the information would benefit the goal of finding production practices that are mutually beneficial to producers, animals, and the environment.

Once fully operable, the SmartFarm Innovation Network will provide a platform for expanding such research to all ARECs. This will boost data collection, add the diversity of regional landscapes to the equations, and accelerate the timetable for turning research into working solutions for Virginia producers.

SmartFarm Innovation Network aims to build resilient, sustainable agricultural systems

At the Eastern Virginia AREC in Warsaw, Virginia, Superintendent Joseph Oakes has already identified some early benefits of the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

The enhanced real-time, site-specific forecasting and monitoring resulting from the collaboration with WeatherSTEM have increased the efficiency of certain projects, such as Oakes’ research on the use of nitrogen as a fertilizer to maximize wheat and barley production.

“It gives you the ability to know what’s going on at your station and helps determine things like growing degree days, when crops will emerge, and how fast they will grow,” Oakes said.

Using drones, Oakes is able, in minutes, to inspect large sections of wheat and barley in the field that would take hours to observe on foot. A multi-spectral sensor on the drones, which collects visible and invisible wavelengths of light, is able to pinpoint specific nitrogen needs for a particular area of growth. Nitrogen is commonly considered to be one of the most important components for plant growth.

“In the past, a person would have to go out on foot and count the tillers to determine how much biomass was present,” Oakes said. “You would count a square foot and create an estimate for the rest of the field.”

Like White’s work, this project has the potential to be quickly disseminated through the AREC and VCE branches of the SmartFarm network. And while the heightened connection will benefit Virginia farmers, the expedited feedback from growers and producers will aid researchers concurrently.

“In a lot of ways, the technology then becomes a new tool for our Extension agents to do a better job of serving the stakeholders of the commonwealth, but this integration with stakeholders also helps our research,” White said. “We can design the perfect sensor tool, but if it does something unexpected like scare the animal, it’s not going to work in real life.”

Harvesting an
impact

Exposure to innovation, access to research, and assistance moving from concepts to working applications are advantages that many farmers throughout the commonwealth glean from the amalgam of Virginia Tech, the ARECS, and local Extension offices.

“I’ve used them greatly since I started farming,” said Jay Hundley, who has been producing some combination of corn, soy, wheat, and other products in Essex County since the 1970s. “Whether it’s chemical research or identifying a weed species, you could call and talk with them to try to make a plan to deal with it. I’ve always learned a lot from them.”

Hundley utilizes an array of precision agriculture technologies, including variable-rate fertilizers, section controls, GPS mapping, and auto-steer for tractors across his 9,000-acre farming operation. The devices are critical to pinpointing specific needs across large chunks of land.

“It’s much more economical because we’re now farming by the acre and not by the whole field,” Hundley said.

Hundley’s experience with technology is common, according to Mike Broaddus ’89, Caroline County Extension agent.

“If you’re not using GPS, you’re either overlapping, or you’re not doing a good job covering,” said Broaddus about spraying crops.

This is also true for planting, where over-seeding an area can not only create waste on the front end, but will produce lower yields as crowded plants compete for limited nutrients from the soil and sun. GPS-guided planting prevents both problems.

Bo Zhang measuring plants

Bo Zhang collaborates with others in the SmartFarm Innovation Network to develop new strains of edamame to grow in Virginia.

“The benefits will more than pay for the equipment, but people don’t realize it,” Broaddus said.

Back in Pulaski County, the youngest farmer in the Bunn family, Wyatt, is already tapped into aspects of the SmartFarm Innovation Network through his ongoing participation in various youth programs. Meanwhile, his grandfather, Doug Bunn, and father, Brandon Bunn, stay connected with Pulaski County Extension Agent Morgan Paulette to learn about new technology and help the Extension office test their applications in real life.

For the Bunns, incorporating GPS auto-steer on their tractors has helped them arrive at an answer as to the usefulness of networking with Virginia Tech, the ARECs, and VCE.

“The first time I used it, I was sold on it. I tell you, it was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Doug Bunn said.