PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
RAPID is funded by the National Science Foundation and a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Besides focusing on sustainability, this project is part of the future of machines — it’s creating the next generation of the emerging ag-tech industry.
Why start with grapes? Carpin, who comes from Italy’s Veneto region and whose family had a small vineyard, said these plants thrive with “stress irrigation” — a tricky balance of keeping soil dry, but not too dry, during critical growing periods.
That makes vineyards a great testing ground for RAPID, and it doesn’t hurt that the end result — at least for now — could be a better glass of Merlot. But someday, RAPID could be used for all kinds of crops.
When the team applied for the USDA grant in 2016, California was deep in a five-year drought. Then came the intense storms of 2017, and Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the drought state of emergency.
Although that crisis passed, conservation has become a permanent conversation, especially in agriculture. California farmers use 35 million-acre feet of water to grow a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
“We need to be ready in a different way when drought happens again,” Carpin said. “No one has tried yet to use machine learning to solve this problem.”
We need to be ready in a different way when drought happens again. No one has tried yet to use machine learning to solve this problem.
UC Merced Computer Science and Engineering Professor Stefano Carpin
Exactly how many gallons of water could RAPID save? Millions?
“We don’t know yet. That’s what the research is all about,” Carpin said. “But even if you can squeeze a few percent, it’s going to be very impactful.”