Agricultural Cyber Field Day showcases collaboration and innovation
The inaugural event highlighted the important partnership between the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture at Virginia Tech and Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia.
In a strategic effort to highlight and build upon the expertise at the convergence of cybersecurity and agriculture, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture at Virginia Tech collaborated with Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia to host the first-ever Agricultural Cyber Field Day.
The inaugural event showcased through presentations, discussions, and hands-on displays the importance of a transdisciplinary understanding of the complexities of agriculture as it continues to evolve in a technology-forward society.
“Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry, providing more than 334,000 jobs,” said Susan Duncan, the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. “The commonwealth’s forward-thinking investment as a leader in cybersecurity workforce development contributes to securing the $70 billion annual economic impact of Virginia’s agriculture.”
Faculty and staff from throughout the university and representing the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia participated in the daylong event that featured Virginia Tech faculty, professors, and researchers touching on topics of expertise, such as biosecurity, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and smart technologies and exploring how these topics intersect with agriculture.
Duncan kicked off the event at the Alphin Stuart Livestock Arena. Duncan explained the importance of relaying knowledge and forging relationships and partnerships, especially between the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia.
She called the Agricultural Cyber Field Day “an entry point” at which those with different fields of study could network and possibly develop partnerships, and even research opportunities, to “explore the known and unknown” of important questions, such as how to produce food both efficiently and safely.
“The need for securing the food and agricultural system escalates as we add new technologies, expand with wireless and Wi-Fi-connected technologies, and rely on computer systems and artificial intelligence strategies for assembling and interpreting digital data,” Duncan said. “These approaches are needed for increasing the efficiencies of food production, from farm to fork, but they also increase risks of unexpected cyber-associated threats. Virginia Tech has tremendous expertise in plant and animal agriculture, food, health, and environmental sciences, all of which are susceptible to cyberattacks.”
Gretchen Matthews, director of Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia and Virginia Tech professor of mathematics, presented on the growing network of cybersecurity researchers, innovators, and students who make up the initiative.
Led by Virginia Tech, Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia is one of the four regional nodes of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which was founded in 2019 to establish Virginia as a global center of excellence at the intersection of cybersecurity, autonomy, and intelligence.
Matthews talked about a range of innovative technologies the initiative’s Southwest Virginia team is currently researching, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous systems, and how these core technologies are being paired with applications to tackle complex issues and answer big data questions, including in the agriculture industry.
One example she used represented a key platform of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture: cyberbiosecurity.
“The agriculture industry is facing a wave of unprecedented cyber risks, and our researchers are pivoting to face these new challenges while also strengthening food supply chains and improving resiliency,” Matthews said. “We look forward to deepening our connections and expanding this research."
Among the professors to present during the day were Robin White, associate professor of animal and poultry sciences, and Tiffany Drape, assistant professor of agricultural, leadership, and community education. White discussed different kinds of data applications and highlighted Virginia Tech research facilities, such as the Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, at which researchers are exploring existing data and generating new data.
Drape presented on several of the projects in which the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative are engaging related to cyberbiosecurity and how these projects are important and of interest to policymakers and stakeholders across the nation. Projects highlighted included one on bioeconomy, internship opportunities, and workforce development.
Following the presentations at the livestock center, field day participants headed to Kentland Farm, where cross-disciplinary innovation was on display.
At the drone airstrip at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, David Schmale, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences; Shane Ross, professor of aerospace and ocean engineering; and Hosein Foroutan, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, released colored smoke bombs as surrogates for hazardous agents that can be transported in the atmosphere.
“You might envision a scenario where you have a crop, and that crop is infected with a dangerous crop pathogen,” Schmale explained to participants. “We here at Kentland Farm have been working to understand the atmospheric transport of high-risk or high-threat plant pathogens.”
Using different methods and tools, such as the colored smoke bombs displayed in bright blue and pink and a vacuum-like tool, researchers release and then trap particles in the atmosphere. Samples are then transferred to the nearby laboratory to be studied.
Technologies like these, Schmale said, are not only important in the study and protection of crops but also in the understanding of human illnesses and future pandemics.
The final demonstration of the day took place at the Kentland Farm Dairy Facility, where professors Gonzalo Ferreira and James Chen presented a research collaboration, one that was truly representative of the mission of the Agricultural Cyber Field Day, Ferreira said.
Several years ago, Ferreira, a professor of dairy science, noticed a negative trend among the pregnant dairy cattle on the farm. Too many of the pregnant cattle, compared with national numbers, were losing their calves before birth. Admittedly not a data science expert, Ferreira turned to Chen, a professor of animal and poultry sciences and data analysis expert, to study “increased activity” in the cattle while pregnant.
Before the study, Ferreira and other researchers interpreted this increased activity as an abortion, or loss of a calf. With Chen’s expertise, they concluded that a sudden increase in activity on a pregnant cow should not be interpreted as an abortion. Instead, a farmer should ignore the activity, not rebreed the cow, and request a pregnancy check by the veterinarian.
Reflecting on the Agricultural Cyber Field Day, Duncan said, “Together, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia’s Commonwealth Cyber Initiative can support and help secure Virginia’s number one private industry, agriculture, through identifying risks, developing the workforce, and serving as leaders in the national effort to protect our food supply.”