March 10, 2023

OATS Center leads the way to the future of agriculture through open-source development

An agriculture-related project at Purdue has created an open-source framework and community for sharing data and algorithms with the goal to improve sustainable food and agricultural systems to help feed the growing world population.

An agriculture-related project at Purdue University has created an open-source framework and community for sharing data and algorithms with the goal to improve sustainable food and agricultural systems to help feed the growing world population.

The Open Ag Technology and Systems (OATS) Center, launched in 2018 with funding from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and key industry partners, has made an enormous impact on stakeholders and students far beyond the West Lafayette, Indiana campus.

A LoRaWAN kit installed on a portable stand
A LoRaWAN kit installed on a portable stand. The kit includes a LoRaWAN gateway device and antenna; a microcomputer to store all sensor data; a rain gauge with soil sensor to determine soil moisture; two other soil sensors for topsoil moisture, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and light intensity; and two GPS trackers. With LoRaWAN, farmers gain context for production decisions, such as when machinery can be run without compaction, when the temperature of soil is ideal to germinate seed or when to irrigate.

James Krogmeier, professor of electrical and computer engineering, co-directs the OATS Center along with Dennis Buckmaster, Dean’s Fellow for Digital Agriculture and professor of agriculture and biological engineering.

The work is led by a core of 19 Purdue researchers from diverse backgrounds, academic units and research interests. The team is organized into three sub-teams: engineering, software and computing, and food and agronomy.

Through engagement in and promotion of open source culture, promising avenues for sustainable food and agricultural systems involving advanced applications, including sensing, networking, big data science, visualization and analytics have been made possible.

“The grand challenge is to leverage these thousands of terabytes of practically inaccessible data to feed 9.7 billion people by improving crop productivity and farmer profitability while using less land, water and energy,” Krogmeier said. “Our goal is to accelerate innovation for sustainability by bringing the power of collaborative open-source culture and tools to agriculture.”

From funding received by Purdue from Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), a nonprofit established in the 2014 Farm Bill, researchers began developing community-based approaches to converting agriculture data and algorithms into actionable tools for farmers. This open-source approach democratizes innovation, reduces barriers to building on others’ work, builds bigger markets and streamlines talent discovery and attraction.

Through this work of promoting open data systems for agriculture, the OATS Center has been a convener of stakeholders including companies such as CNH Industrial, Land O'Lakes, Semios, Microsoft, Climate, Smithfield, Infosys and others. Industry organizations, such as the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), the National Pork Board and the Farm Foundation, also have benefited from OATS research.  

Other impact has been seen with faculty collaborations at peer institutions, including Ohio State University, University of Kentucky, University of Nebraska, Tuskegee University and North Carolina State University.  

This education and selling of the idea of open source to the industry also necessitated involvement with standards organizations such as AgGateway and ASTM International. While standards help with interoperability, someone has to write and deploy the code implementing the standards in order to actually achieve interoperability. The OATS Center addressed this directly in its own open-source work and indirectly in educating students for these tasks.

For example, on multiple occasions the Center partnered with the Farm Foundation, a trust created by International Harvester President Alexander Legge in the 1930s, to convene additional stakeholders and co-host event storming and hackathon events, pioneering with partners on a new model for achieving interoperability through open-source code in diverse aspects of agriculture and the food supply chain.

Data belongs to the farmer

The OATS Center’s contention from the beginning has been that (production) ag data belongs to the farmer. The Open Ag Data Alliance (OADA) API, a progressive project since the center’s inception, targeted that principle with the realization that data will never be in one place. But different locations for data does not have to mean it cannot work together — as evidenced by the internet. Researchers look at the issues from a farmer’s perspective and have tried to build data models, code and solutions that ensure privacy even when data is used in applications seemingly disconnected from the collection and storage platform.

Much of OATS research on data pipeline aspects of connectivity, data movement, interoperability and security has been motivated by such situations. It focused on privacy and control prior to the Ag Data Transparent project and the Farm Bureau’s statements about farm data privacy contributing to these views and conversations.

The Center also addresses broadband connectivity issues which are a significant barrier to data use throughout the ag value chain. Connectivity enabling the data pipeline became part and parcel with the Lilly Endowment-funded Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN) project and the IoT4Ag Engineering Research Center (ERC) — uniting faculty and students from Purdue, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California Merced and the University of Florida with industry and government partners. Purdue’s approach is to build systems that work without broadband but are ready when connection is available. The offline-first approach results in delay tolerant systems.

Training the next generation in agriculture

In order to continue the important research in open-source systems for farmers, OATS is training the next generation of graduate and undergraduate students in data engineering science for agriculture in several ways:

  • USDA/NIFA funded HEC grant for improving informatics skills for agricultural students through new portable courses and modules. Course materials released as open-source courseware for adoption and use by other educators.
  • USDA/NIFA funded Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (REEU) summer program for undergraduates.
  • USDA/NIFA funded National Needs Fellowships for 12 graduate students.
  • Purdue’s Data Driven Agriculture minor and the Data Science in ABE concentration grew out of OATS instructional thrust.

In addition, through the Purdue Extension and outreach activities, OATS has provided educational programming and useful tools to the industry. Examples include the WHIN-inspired seminar series on “Digging into the Data Pipeline;” GROW, a progressive web app that integrates public and private data for grower  decision making; and hosting multiple conferences, hackathons and other events.

Collaborations across Purdue departments and colleges

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the Center's work, most of the projects require collaboration across disciplines. Even projects that were not interdisciplinary have benefited from collaboration because of the scope and complexity. OATS created new collaborations between:

  • Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE)
  • Agronomy and ECE
  • ECE  and Food Sciences (FS)
  • ABE and Horticulture and Landscape Architecture (HLA)
  • ABE and the College of Liberal Arts
  • ABE and Purdue Polytechnic

Perhaps the largest benefit through these efforts has been educating engineers about agriculture and agriculture students about computing, design and electronics. Buckmaster said the digital nature of the ag-food system from this point forward is clear.

“This center’s activities, in addition to the research and outreach, will facilitate better graduates in the digital agriculture realm," he said.

Josh Bailey, an undergraduate in Agricultural Economics presenting at OATSCON23
At the OATSCON23 conference, Josh Bailey, an undergraduate in Agricultural Economics at Purdue minoring in Data Driven Agriculture, presents his approach to deploy a system at his home orchard in New York using the OATS open source LoRaWAN code and design.