The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $3 million in grants to advance the use of robots that work alongside people in American production agriculture. The four grants are part of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), a federal research partnership that includes NIFA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense.

"We are on the cusp of seeing incredible advancement in the use of robotics and sensors supporting agriculture in this country," said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director. "These technologies, which are components of the 'internet of agricultural things,' have the ability to make agriculture production more efficient, saving time and money - benefits that can be passed from producers to consumers."

NIFA's Fiscal Year 2014 awards include:

• Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Ga., $900,498 - This project will develop the robotic technology required to autonomously collect leaves and soil samples that are critical to the implementation of an integrated crop and pest management system.

• University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., $532,607 - The major goal of this project is to build a robust agricultural framework for cooperative networks of human operators and robotic mobile platforms that provide guaranteed performance in highly variable terrain and soil conditions and support interchangeability of tools, platforms, and crops.

• Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa., $556,726 - The goal of this work is to develop a general approach for the detection and tracking of people in agricultural environments, which is a requirement for the safe and effective deployment of robotic agricultural equipment in many applications.

• Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., $1,010,169 - The goal of this research is to create core technologies for robot-human and robot-environment interfaces needed in building an intelligent bin-managing system implementable in the natural environment of tree fruit orchards.

The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the U.S. that work alongside or cooperatively with people. This program aims to develop the next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.

NIFA's role in the NRI focuses on research that enhances food production, processing, and distribution that benefit consumers and rural communities. Examples of technologies to be investigated include:

Automated systems for inspection, sorting, processing, or handling of animal or plant products (including forest products) in post-harvest, processing or product distribution environments.

Improved robotics for inspection, sorting, and handling of plants and flowers in greenhouses and nurseries or for handling (e.g., sorting, vaccinating, deworming) large numbers of live animals.

Multi-modal and rapid sensing systems for detecting microbial contamination, defects, ripeness, physical damage, size, shape, and other quality attributes of plant or animal products (including forest products) or for monitoring air or water quality.

Additionally, projects are expected to engage with industry and academia to identify research needs and provide training for the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. More information is available