Manoj Karkee, the new director of Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, talks about agricultural robotics research during the 2023 FIRA USA conference and equipment trade show at the Salinas Sports Complex in Salinas, California, in September. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
Manoj Karkee, the new director of Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, talks about agricultural robotics research during the 2023 FIRA USA conference and equipment trade show at the Salinas Sports Complex in Salinas, California, in September. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Washington State University recently announced a leadership change at its Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems. Manoj Karkee, a professor in the biological systems engineering department, will step into the director role following the retirement of Qin Zhang, who served as director since 2010. 

WSU created the center, CPAAS for short, in 1999 to advance technology innovations for Washington agriculture. In 2023, it included 17 graduate students, six undergraduate interns, three postdoctoral scientists, two visiting researchers, seven affiliated faculty and three core faculty: Zhang; Lav Khot, who leads a group focused on precision agriculture and serves as director of AgWeatherNet; and Karkee, with his automation and robotics research group. 

“Within my program, I have been trying to develop automated systems empowered by machine vision systems for over a decade — as a researcher without time and money to create a company — but we’ve been developing robotic harvesting and vision systems for crop load estimation for 10 years. In the past five years, we’ve seen lots of companies doing similar things: robotic picking, crop estimation, vision-based technologies,” Karkee said. “We knew back then those were the areas growers needed, and we knew there was a viable way to get there.”

When Karkee joined WSU, the field of robotic tools for specialty crops was wide open and the industry was ready to support any research proposal related to orchard robotics. In today’s landscape, crowded with private companies, Karkee believes CPAAS’ role needs to evolve to work more with those companies and growers to accelerate the process of bringing cost-effective technology to commercial adoption. 

To that end, Karkee plans to meet with tree fruit, grape and other specialty crop producers over the next few months to learn more about their research and technology needs and how CPAAS can help. To kick-start those conversations, he also shared with Good Fruit Grower some of his ideas on the future roles for WSU and CPAAS in agricultural innovation

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Good Fruit Grower: How does CPAAS collaborate with the rapidly growing landscape of ag tech companies?

Karkee: It’s more and more important that we find good synergy with what private companies are doing and what we are doing at CPAAS. We don’t want to work on the exact same thing. We make quicker progress if we partner together and identify specific topic areas where CPAAS’ activities complement those of private industry and vice versa. 

For example, I worked in the robotic picking area for years and then switched to other applications such as robotic pruning, thinning and pollination while companies were trying to develop commercially viable harvesting machines. 

There are three ways technologies we work on can get into farmers’ hands. WSU’s service centers or faculty members can directly make technologies and tools available for commercial adoption. This model has been more successful in commercializing technologies not requiring hardware or mechanical system development and maintenance. 

Alternatively, we can partner with a private company, such as my collaboration with FFRobotics, in developing technologies together — and hopefully they can successfully commercialize those technologies. In addition, these companies will benefit from our collaborative work to integrate new features such as pruning and thinning into their harvest technology. 

The third approach is that we develop this knowledge and publish reports and scientific articles that third-party companies can use to assess the potential of various technologies before they make their own decisions about what technology to work on and approach to take. We are always generating knowledge that moves private companies forward. 

And then there’s the training aspect. No matter what technology we are working on, our students gain the experience with machine vision systems and computational tools and, more importantly, the experience of working with the end users, the farmers. This creates the human resources these technology companies are using to advance their solutions. 

GFG: It seems that even as there’s this proliferation in ag tech research and investment, the last mile of commercialization to cost-effectively meet growers’ needs remains a challenge. Is there a role for CPAAS in addressing that? 

Karkee: CPAAS’ role will need to evolve with the rapidly changing ag tech landscape. The finish line, as you put it, is where as a researcher, I cannot do much. But CPAAS, as an institution, can serve as a hub for collaboration to help identify the hurdles by bringing private industry, growers and university researchers together to have open, honest discussions. 

It’s more important than ever to engage with farmers and technology companies so we are not operating in a vacuum. We are playing this role of engaging partners from various disciplines so we create a vibrant community of technology developers and other stakeholders focused on solving the challenges in the field. 

GFG: What new opportunities do you see ahead for CPAAS? 

Karkee: As the industry starts to look into adopting various robotic solutions, with multiple companies offering different tools that growers are interested in, they have some questions and need more information. As a university center that can provide unbiased information to manufacturers and growers, I am thinking about developing an independent evaluation center that can be used by both the companies and the farmers to assist in their needs in finding out what technology would work for them and assist in their decision-making. It’s something CPAAS is exploring and developing a plan for.

I am also envisioning a new event I’m calling ‘Startup Fest,’ hopefully happening early next year, where we will be bringing at least a dozen startups and ag tech companies who are providing automation solutions for specialty crops, together with researchers and growers, and sit down together to discuss how we are working and functioning and how we can collaborate more closely in the future. We need to look at what worked and what didn’t and where our future efforts should be. 

GFG: What do you want to hear from industry stakeholders about how CPAAS can best serve them in the future? 

Karkee: I just want to emphasize that I’d like to be always engaged with the ag industry to learn where they stand right now and where they are going in the future. There is a lot I’d like to learn by visiting the stakeholder community and discussing how CPAAS can make larger and wider impacts to the success of the industries we serve, including tree fruit crops, wine grapes and vegetable crops.

I’d be really interested in learning what the success of CPAAS looks like to them in the short and long term. Large numbers of students and grants coming to the university and the publications we generate are the metrics of success here internally at WSU. That’s how I tell the university I did my job. But the industry looks at CPAAS with a different set of eyes and for different needs and expectations. It would be good to work with the ag industries in the state to define those needs and expectations. 

by Kate Prengaman