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Shining A Light On Precision Ag

Dr. Xin Sun

By Kara Lidberg
Photos by Hillary Ehlen

There is a place on campus at North Dakota State University (NDSU) that has begun to shine brighter than before.

The Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering (ABEN) is on a mission to impact the environment, food systems and production agriculture by generating new knowledge in technologies and engineering.

At ABEN’s building on Albrecht Boulevard in Fargo, that bright light seemed to emanate from room 105 ― Assistant Professor Dr. Xin “Rex” Sun’s office. If you’ve never met Dr. Sun, he radiates positivity, passion and kindness and is evidently admired and appreciated by fellow faculty members and students alike who, when discovered he was being interviewed, made comments like, “Oh, he’s a good one!” and “There is nobody more deserving.”

Among a busy day of prepping and meetings, teaching and team projects and writing proposals for funding, Dr. Sun is working toward the commendable goal of wanting to lead the NDSU precision ag program to become one of the best in not only the nation but also the world.

The university’s precision ag program was officially launched this past spring as both a major and minor option for students and NDSU is only one of two land-grant universities in the United States to have it. This newness and rarity, however, is paired with a lack of awareness by the community, businesses and prospective students, affecting the recruitment process.

“As we’re only on the second semester of the program,” Dr. Sun said, “we’re excited to share that the enrollment of precision ag students has already more than doubled in my class from last semester, but we still have a ways to go.”

Dr. Sun is thankful for the opportunity to speak at the Cultivate Conference and for Emerging Prairie’s dedication to facilitating the conversation of technology and agriculture coming together. “The organization (Emerging Prairie) is even seeking collaboration opportunities with our program,” he added, excitedly. “I believe that with my introduction of the program at the conference, there will be more opportunities for us to connect with precision ag-focused businesses and farmers throughout the state.”

The program seems to already be on its way.

This device is paired with a drone application and is showing the vegetation of a soybean field. The green areas are where the soil is healthy and soybeans will likely grow better versus the yellow where soil quality is poor. This gives farmers an idea of which areas of the land need fertilizer and which do not, ultimately allowing them to save money and cut down on chemical usage by not spraying the entire field.

Partnering With Microsoft

Microsoft is working with the precision ag program, sponsoring every single student to attend the Cultivate Conference. “We have made it a requirement to go,” Dr. Sun said, “so there will be at least 26 students attending, as well as faculty and researchers.”

Microsoft is also donating 20 FarmBeats Student Kits, a project that was developed in 2014 by Ranveer Chandra, one of the company’s researchers and another speaker at the conference. “This will basically include services that track soil moisture, temperature, light and more to help users observe and respond to a variety of variabilities,” Dr. Sun said. “They will also train the instructors, including me, on how to use the technology so we can, in turn, teach the students.”

In addition, the company is providing 10 internship opportunities for precision ag students. “Microsoft is being so generous,” Dr. Sun said. “Each student will get $5,000 for their internship scholarship. It’s all very exciting.”

There is a large amount of support from the state for precision ag technology. From our governor to the community of Fargo to businesses like Microsoft to NDSU to individual people, they are really interested in investing their time and money in precision agriculture and technology, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”

Dr. Xin “Rex” Sun

What’s Going On At ABEN?

As part of the ABEN team, Dr. Sun has more than 10 precision ag projects in both the crop and livestock markets that he is presently researching and starting to develop.

For example, along with the help of his students, Dr. Sun is building a multi-functional, autonomous vehicle that will be used to scan fields to detect soil moisture, take pictures, identify weeds and more. “It’s been my baby,” he said about the project. “It’s built specifically to the size of the crop’s rows and will have a robotic system, GPS, automatic navigation system and cameras. It’s also a great opportunity for my students to help construct it and in the future, I hope to have senior design students assisting me.”

On the livestock side, Dr. Sun has been working with thermal imaging software designed to detect cattle diseases. “A problem sweeping the beef cattle industry,” he said, “is a respiratory disease that has become a huge issue for ranchers, costing them a lot of time and money.” The disease usually starts with a fever and if caught in time, ranchers can give their cattle a vaccine. The problem is, there is no effective method to detect which cows have the disease so the ranchers end up spending more money on vaccines than necessary.

“This device and software can give you the real-time temperature,” Dr. Sun said laughing as he placed it over his face to give an example, showing the greens, yellows and reds on his own skin. “All you have to do is take a picture of the cattle and the user will be able to see which cow has a fever and give vaccines out only on a needed basis.” In addition to saving money on the vaccines, this allows for fewer chemicals in the meat that the population will eventually consume.

There’s Something About North Dakota

Dr. Sun is both appreciative of and inspired by North Dakota and the community that surrounds him. When people ask him why he’s in Fargo, his response every time is “I just love the people,” knowing that they’re always ready and willing to help. “When I was a student here,” he continued, “whenever I faced an issue, there was always someone to help me. Now I’m a faculty member and my goal is to pass it on by helping my own students.”

Dr. Sun also believes that North Dakota is the perfect place to accomplish agricultural innovation with how much support he and the program have received. “There is a large amount of support from the state for precision ag technology,” he said. “From our governor to the community of Fargo to businesses like Microsoft to NDSU to individual people, they are really interested in investing their time and money in precision agriculture and technology, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”

Dr. Xin "Rex" Sun
Dr. Xin “Rex” Sun is originally from Yantai City, China. He attended Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU), a public university based in Nanjing, China, from 2007 to 2013, obtaining his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering. From 2010 to 2012, he ventured to Fargo for the first time as a visiting scholar at North Dakota State University (NDSU). After spending two and a half years as a lecturer back at NAU after he graduated, he returned to NDSU as a research scientist in 2015. In addition to continuing his research, Dr. Sun has been in his position as an assistant professor since the fall of 2018.

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