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Girish Chowdhary: My path to Illinois

5/1/2020

Girish Chowdhary

Illinois ECE Assistant Professor Girish Chowdhary
Illinois ECE Assistant Professor Girish Chowdhary (Photo credit: Matthew Lester Photography, LLC. and Illinois News Bureau)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – I was born in Mumbai, India, to parents who worked full-time. My mother, who was the first woman to work as an officer in the Maharashtra Civil Services, came in at a time when parental leave did not exist. Because of this, I spent my early years with my grandparents in Kumta, India. My grandfather was a university physics professor and instilled in me an interest and respect for science – particularly astrophysics.

Girish Chowdhary, foreground, and his father, Vinayak Chowdhary, with their oxen Dhavalya and Povalya. (Photo courtesy: Illinois News Bureau, Girish Chowdhary and map by Michael B. Vincent)
Girish Chowdhary, foreground, and his father, Vinayak Chowdhary, with their oxen Dhavalya and Povalya. (Photo credit: Illinois News Bureau, Girish Chowdhary and map by Michael B. Vincent)

At my high school in Pune, India, my interests shifted to aerospace engineering. The school was close to an agriculture area, so farming was, by default, something that was part of life, at least peripherally. Even though I was thinking about the stars and space, agriculture was still there.

I received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. After graduation, several friends encouraged me to join them in Germany to work on a program called the ARTIS Unmanned Aircraft during the early days of drone technology.

While in Germany, my boss convinced me that the U.S. – Georgia Tech, specifically – was the place to be if I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, so that is where I headed to receive my Ph.D. I later moved on to a postdoc position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then to my first faculty position at Oklahoma State University.

All of a sudden, I was back out in the fields, one could say, and that got me thinking about the problems with modern agriculture and how my training in autonomous technology could help.

If you ask a farmer, they will tell you that everything boils down to labor – finding labor during the growing season can be very challenging. In the U.S., we deal with this problem with large-scale automation. We use fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides to replace labor. To turn a profit, farms need to be very large, with big equipment, and many chemicals. This model is not sustainable! I wanted to find a creative way out of this problem. I saw a gap in the available equipment – there had to be something in between large tractors and human labor.

The robots communicate with each other and the researchers via a mobile phone application. (Graphic courtesy: Girish Chowdhary and Illinois News Bureau)
The robots communicate with each other and the researchers via a mobile phone application. (Photo credit: Girish Chowdhary and Illinois News Bureau)

My answer? Small robots.

At first, I thought about using drones, but quickly realized that they needed to be on the ground and under the crop canopy. By deploying a small robot, or an army of small robots, depending on the size of the farm, we could have cheap labor to do various tasks on the farm, from monitoring crop health to weeding and spot spraying. Small robots can give growers access to valuable data about crop health and the ability to treat diseases and kill weeds at a new level of precision.

But what does an aerospace engineer know about agriculture? Finding funding to expand this vision was not easy. I was stuck in a world between agriculture and engineering. But then I had an opportunity interview here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was fortunate to cross paths with an institution that understood my vision.

K.C. Ting, the agricultural and biological engineering department head at that time, saw the opportunity and pushed hard to hire me. Visionaries like him are the main reason I am here today doing this work.

At Illinois, this vision has bloomed into an invaluable research collaboration for some of the brightest minds crop sciences. The robots can do the research fieldwork required in a fraction of the time.

Because the U. of I. is a top engineering school, I also can collaborate with experts across a broad spectrum of engineering specialties. The Center for Digital Agriculture and the Center for Autonomy make it a perfect fit.

EarthSense founders Chinmay Soman, left, and Chowdhary introducing their robot to a farmer in Farmer City, Illinois. (Photo credit: Knvul Sheikh and Illinios News Bureau)
EarthSense founders Chinmay Soman, left, and Chowdhary introducing their robot to a farmer in Farmer City, Illinois. (Photo credit: Knvul Sheikh and Illinios News Bureau)

A big moment for my research group was the opportunity for us to show farmers our robots. At first, the farmers thought our robots were too flimsy to work on fields, but we showed them how easy they are to operate; we listened to them and came to an understanding of what we can achieve together. Our robot is something a farmer can pick up, easily transport and quickly operate. It is so different from the large equipment they are used to! They saw that crops can be managed with the same intensity that one may have in their home garden – but at any scale.

A student operates the TerraSentia robot in Chowdhary’s campus laboratory.  (Photo credit: Matthew Lester Photography, LLC. and Illinois News Bureau)
A student operates the TerraSentia robot in Chowdhary’s campus laboratory.  (Photo credit: Matthew Lester Photography, LLC. and Illinois News Bureau)

With the robots allowing for easier crop management, the decentralization of farming is now a possibility. Farming is centralized in agricultural areas like central Illinois, but what if we open up more areas? That way, farms could be closer to population centers. With this vision in mind, I co-founded EarthSense with Chinmay Soman, my old school friend and an Illinois research scholar.
Innovation requires financial investment, and the U. of I. is willing to invest in making visions like ours a reality with programs like EnterpriseWorks at the Research Park. With this support, the robots my group has built are being commercialized and deployed by major plant-breeding firms.

Chowdhary and his students (Photo credit: Matthew Lester Photography, LLC. and Illinois News Burea)
Chowdhary and his students (Photo credit: Matthew Lester Photography, LLC. and Illinois News Bureau)

At the lab, our sights are set on autonomous farms that are more sustainable and put more money in growers’ pockets. We are working on teams of robots that can mechanically weed fields without using a drop of chemicals. These robots could be the answer to the growing herbicide-resistance crisis. On the horizon are also under-canopy spraying robots, and robots that can diversify our crop systems and even let urban dwellers grow vegetable patches in their backyards.

Agricultural engineering needs a new face, and at the U. of I. we are building our very own Silicon Valley of agriculture. Somebody is going to do it, and we should be the leaders.

Check out the original article on the Illinois News Bureau site.