July 3, 2024

NDSU projects use technology to improve North Dakota agriculture, commercial transportation


NDSU is investing to accelerate technologies in industries vital to the state’s commercial interests, thanks to the Technology Acceleration Program, an initiative funded by new state legislative appropriations for research.

“The State of North Dakota legislature and Governor Burgum focused on commercialization and advancing technology readiness levels through their support of the Economic Diversification Research Funds,” said NDSU Vice President of Research and Creative Activity Colleen Fitzgerald. “We answered that call in part with the new Technology Acceleration Program, and we’re very thankful for that support. We can’t wait to show how these two investments help drive innovation in critical infrastructure for AgTech as well as in autonomous trucking in rural communities.”

TAP aims to accelerate the development of prototypes (e.g. software, IoT, algorithms, sensors, biologics, materials, medical devices) that have potential to leverage public-private partnerships and fit within NDSU’s strategic priorities or align with prior and/or existing research investments at NDSU.

“As we continue to transform campus research through the opportunities for use-inspired research and translational impact, we will continue to leverage both state and federal funding for applied research and innovation, leading to continued growth in awards received and the dollars generated by research expenditures,” said Fitzgerald.

The two projects are led respectively by the NDSU Agricultural Experiment Station Associate Director Frank Casey and NDSU Ag Technology Executive Project Manager Aaron Reinholz, and by Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute Director Denver Tolliver, who have both received $175,000 in funding for projects supported by the Technology Acceleration Program.

Wireless Communication Test Bed

The agriculture-focused project is called “Wireless Communication Test Bed to Support IoT Applications in Agriculture” and involves implementing a prototype test bed system at NDSU to provide strong wireless coverage to nearby agricultural fields and livestock facilities.

Conceptually, the Internet of Things (IoT) provides a means to collect ever more granular data to inform decision-making whether in support of our agricultural research or on the farms and ranches of North Dakota. However, while the technology is available to monitor nearly every aspect of our homes remotely by connecting sensor devices to WiFi technologies, that same level of plug-and-play wireless connectivity in agriculture applications doesn’t exist due to reliability and cost-effective connectivity issues.

Reinholz hopes that the wireless communication technology system, which will leverage work proposed by Dakota Carrier Network (DCN) and T3 Broadband, will provide a reliable, scalable and cost-efficient solution to field connectivity for agriculture. He also sees the system as a catalyst for growth in IoT adoption in the agricultural sector by accelerating development and testing of sensor devices and applications towards solutions that can translate to commercial applications.

Accelerating the Deployment of Autonomous Trucks in Rural Areas

The transportation-focused project is called "Accelerating the Deployment of Autonomous Trucks in Rural Areas" and will study how to speed up the adoption of usage of autonomous trucks in the state.

North Dakota’s economy relies heavily on efficient transportation services, particularly commercial trucking. However, the industry faces challenges today including driver shortages and high turnover rates with more than 90% of truck drivers leaving their jobs within a year. This shortage affects crucial sectors such as agriculture and energy. Additionally, human error is involved in 95% of all truck crashes.

Tolliver notes the many ways autonomous trucks can help solve these issues. "They have the potential to improve safety by virtually eliminating crashes attributable to human factors, to address driver shortages, to increase efficiency by operating nearly 24/7, and to enhance freight services, especially in rural areas," he said. "In addition, they provide a benefit to agricultural industries at harvest time and during other peak periods when trucks need to operate safely, yet transport as many loads as possible during a compressed time period."

Tolliver adds that these benefits may not be realized right away, given the slow pace of deployment in the region. "This is why the project is so important—to facilitate and accelerate the adoption of autonomous trucks in North Dakota."

The project will explore infrastructure improvements, the creation of automated trucking hubs and the integration of these hubs into supply chains. It will also address economic opportunities, workforce challenges and cybersecurity considerations. The goal is to develop enhanced autonomous driving systems that can operate effectively in adverse weather conditions and on rural roads.

"Autonomous vehicle research is a very competitive field," added Tolliver. "Many well-funded universities have invested many millions of dollars in test vehicles, tracks and research time to become leaders in this futuristic field. The EDRF project can help us build our reputation and internal capacity to compete for federal and private funding opportunities in the future. Moreover, the project will allow us to demonstrate that we are engaged in innovative research that will have economic and workforce development benefits in the state for many years to come."

Tolliver hopes to provide valuable information for trucking companies, shippers and state agencies to make informed decisions about deploying autonomous truck technologies, ultimately leading to more reliable service options, increased efficiency, and reduced labor costs.

These projects join others already funded through the Economic Diversification Research Funds appropriated in the 2023 North Dakota legislative session. The purposes of the EDRF funds include stimulating economic activity across the state through new technology, concepts and products as well as promoting job creation and career and wage growth while providing experiential learning opportunities for students.

Categories: Research
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