Agricultural Advancements: How AI at SKUAST is Shaping the Future of Farming in Kashmir

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The demand for AI professionals in agriculture is expected to grow significantly in the coming years as the industry increasingly adopts advanced technologies to tackle challenges like climate change and food security. Global spending on “smart agriculture” is projected to reach $15.3 billion by 2025, with the AI in agriculture market set to grow at a CAGR of 20%, reaching $2.5 billion by 2026. 

“This growth underscores the need for skilled professionals who can implement AI-driven solutions for crop monitoring, pest management, and farm automation,” says Dr. Showkat Rasool, a highly accomplished researcher and academic in the field of Precision Agriculture. “AI professionals will play a crucial role in driving innovation, sustainability, and productivity in agriculture, making them key contributors to the industry’s future advancements.”

Keeping this futuristic requirement in view, SKUAST-Kashmir has come with AI in Agriculture program. The vision behind this graduation course, Dr Rasool says, is to empower students with specialised AI skills tailored for precision agriculture, fostering hands-on experience and diverse career paths, ultimately producing next-generation, industry-ready graduates. “This innovative initiative aims to drive sustainable farming practices, enhance agricultural productivity, and address critical challenges such as climate change, resource efficiency, and food security.”

Currently serving as the Incharge of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at SKUAST-K and the coordinator of this groundbreaking program, Dr. Rasool holds both a Ph.D. and a Master’s in Agricultural Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. Additionally, he has enriched his expertise as a visiting scientist at Kyoto University of Advanced Sciences in Japan. With a robust background in applying cutting-edge technologies in agriculture, Dr. Rasool in a freewheeling chat with Free Press Kashmir talks about AI in Agriculture in detail.

Dr. Showkat Rasool.

What sparked the idea for the B.Tech AI in Agriculture program, and what problem are you trying to solve?

The B.Tech AI in Agriculture program was born out of a pressing need to revolutionise the agricultural sector. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) transforming industries worldwide, we recognised the immense potential of technologies like AI, ML, IoT, and cloud connectivity to transform agriculture. Research by NASSCOM and McKinsey revealed a staggering $65 billion opportunity to enhance agriculture through effective use of critical datasets like soil health records, crop yields, weather, remote sensing, and pest images.

However, we faced a significant challenge: a shortage of professionals with both agricultural expertise and cutting-edge technical skills. To address this, SKUAST-K and IIT Mandi joined forces to create a program that would equip students with the skills to harness AI, IoT, and data analytics to drive agricultural productivity, sustainability, and innovation.

Our goal is to tackle critical challenges like declining productivity, unsustainable farming practices, and the need for data-driven decision-making. By empowering students with the knowledge and expertise to integrate emerging technologies into agriculture, we aim to create a new generation of leaders who can drive growth, innovation, and sustainability in the agricultural sector.

How does this program differ from other agriculture or AI-related programs, and what makes it unique?

Well, the program stands out by offering a unique blend of agricultural science and artificial intelligence, unlike other programs that focus on either discipline independently. While B.Tech Agricultural Engineering primarily applies traditional engineering principles to agricultural problems, and B.Tech in AI focuses on developing pure AI skills, this program integrates both fields to address modern agricultural challenges comprehensively. This program uniquely combines core agricultural principles with advanced AI technologies, enabling students to tackle issues such as precision agriculture, climate change adaptation, and sustainable farming. It is designed to produce graduates who are not only skilled in AI and machine learning but also have a deep understanding of agricultural systems, which is crucial for implementing effective AI solutions in agriculture.

Moreover, the program is a result of a prestigious collaboration between SKUAST-K and IIT Mandi, leveraging the strengths of both institutions. This partnership ensures a dual-location learning experience, access to state-of-the-art facilities, and a curriculum developed in close consultation with industry leaders. This industry-aligned curriculum includes hands-on projects, internships with leading agricultural and AI companies, and opportunities for international exposure, making it a pioneering and comprehensive educational experience in the field of AI-driven agriculture.

What is the vision behind the program, and what do you hope to achieve with this innovative initiative?

The vision behind the program is to empower students with specialised AI skills tailored for precision agriculture, fostering hands-on experience and diverse career paths, ultimately producing next-generation, industry-ready graduates. This innovative initiative aims to drive sustainable farming practices, enhance agricultural productivity, and address critical challenges such as climate change, resource efficiency, and food security. By integrating advanced AI technologies with core agricultural principles, the program develops professionals who can create and implement cutting-edge solutions, making them invaluable assets to the rapidly growing agriculture industry. With opportunities for international exposure, industry-aligned curriculum, and a strong focus on research and innovation, graduates will be well-equipped to drive the future of agriculture, ensuring high employability and significant contributions to global agricultural advancements.

Can you provide an overview of the program structure and key learning outcomes students can expect?

The B.Tech AI in Agriculture program is meticulously designed to produce next-generation, industry-ready graduates by integrating theoretical knowledge with extensive practical experience. Spanning four years, the program begins with the first two years at SKUAST-K, where students will study foundational courses in engineering mathematics, computer fundamentals, chemistry, physics, and basic agricultural sciences, along with introductory AI and ML principles. This foundation prepares them for the advanced coursework at IIT Mandi in the third year, where they will engage in in-depth studies of AI, machine learning, IoT systems, cloud computing, and robotics, complemented by specialised electives in areas like deep learning and blockchain in agriculture. Practical design projects will further enhance their hands-on learning experience.

In the fourth year, students have the flexibility to undertake capstone projects and internships at SKUAST-K, IIT Mandi, or with industry partners, ensuring they gain real-world experience and industry exposure. The program aims to equip students with specialised AI skills tailored for agricultural applications, develop their practical expertise through real-world projects, and prepare them for diverse career paths, including roles such as AI engineers, agricultural data analysts, and precision agriculture specialists. Additionally, the program fosters a culture of research and innovation, encourages global exposure through international collaborations, and promotes sustainable farming practices. This comprehensive approach ensures that graduates are well-equipped to drive the future of agriculture with advanced AI and technological solutions, making them invaluable assets to the rapidly evolving agriculture industry.

How do you strike a balance between theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience, and how does the program prepare students for their future profession?

The B.Tech AI in Agriculture program strikes a balance between theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience through a carefully structured curriculum that integrates both aspects seamlessly. In the first two years at SKUAST-K, students build a strong foundation in engineering, basic agricultural sciences, and introductory AI and ML principles, ensuring a solid theoretical understanding. This is complemented by practical courses and lab work that apply these concepts to real-world scenarios.

In the third year at IIT Mandi, the focus shifts to advanced AI and technology courses, where students delve deeper into subjects like data science, IoT, cloud computing, and robotics. Alongside theoretical learning, students engage in practical design projects, which provide hands-on experience in applying AI solutions to agricultural challenges.

The fourth year is dedicated to capstone projects and internships, either at SKUAST-K, IIT Mandi, or with industry partners. This immersive experience allows students to work on real-world projects, gaining valuable industry exposure and practical skills. They also have the opportunity to choose electives that align with their career interests, further personalising their learning experience.

Throughout the program, a blend of classroom instruction, laboratory work, design practicums, and field internships ensures that students not only understand theoretical concepts but also know how to apply them in practical settings. This holistic approach prepares students for their future professions by equipping them with both the knowledge and experience needed to excel in the rapidly evolving agriculture and AI industries. Graduates emerge as well-rounded professionals ready to tackle real-world problems, innovate, and drive advancements in smart agriculture.

What kind of support system do you have in place for students to ensure they’re getting the most out of the program?

The B.Tech AI in Agriculture program is supported by a comprehensive system designed to maximise student success and ensure a robust learning experience. The program is supported by well qualified, internationally trained faculty members who bring cutting-edge knowledge and global perspectives to the classroom. Students will have access to state-of-the-art laboratories, including AI and Machine Learning Lab, IoT and Automation Lab, Robotics Lab, Drone Lab, and Basic Engineering and Applied Sciences Lab, all integral for hands-on learning and innovation. Additionally, the program leverages the world-class facilities at IIT Mandi, offering high-tech classrooms, research centres, and collaborative spaces. A strong emphasis is placed on industry engagement, with partnerships with leading companies like NVIDIA, Tech Mahindra, and Microsoft, providing students with invaluable internship opportunities and comprehensive placement assistance. The program’s support system also includes academic advising, mentoring, and additional tutoring to help students overcome challenges and succeed academically. This extensive support network ensures that students are well-equipped with both theoretical knowledge and practical skills, preparing them to become leaders and innovators in the rapidly evolving field of AI-driven agriculture.

What career paths can graduates of this program expect, and are there plans for a follow-up master’s program?

Graduates of the B.Tech AI in Agriculture program can look forward to a diverse array of career paths that leverage their specialised skills at the intersection of agriculture and advanced technologies. Potential career opportunities include:

• AI Engineer in Agriculture: Developing and implementing AI solutions to enhance agricultural productivity and sustainability.

• Agricultural Data Analyst: Analysing data from various sources to optimise farming practices and decision-making processes.

• Precision Agriculture Specialist: Using technology to monitor and manage crops and livestock with high precision.

• Agri-Tech Product Manager: Overseeing the development and deployment of technological products designed for the agricultural sector.

• Agricultural Robotics Engineer: Designing and developing robotic systems to automate farming tasks.

• Agricultural Technology Innovator: Creating innovative technological solutions to address contemporary agricultural challenges.

• Data Scientist in Agriculture: Applying data science techniques to solve problems related to crop yields, pest management, and resource optimisation.

• Researcher or Academic: Conducting advanced research in AI applications for agriculture or pursuing academic positions to teach the next generation of students.

Each of these paths offers unique opportunities for professional growth and contribution to the agricultural industry’s advancement.

What resources or support do you offer to help students transition into their careers and make a meaningful impact?

The program will offer comprehensive support to ensure students transition smoothly into their careers and make a meaningful impact. With highly qualified faculty from both SKUAST-K and IIT Mandi, students will benefit from top-tier education and mentorship. They will gain hands-on experience in state-of-the-art labs, including the AI and Machine Learning Lab, IoT and Automation Lab, Robotics Lab, Drone Lab, and the Specialised Agricultural Systems Laboratory. Additionally, students will have access to world-class laboratories at IIT Mandi. Industry collaborations with leading companies like NVIDIA and Tech Mahindra will provide internships and practical exposure. A dedicated placement cell at SKUAST will assist with job placements, while continuous curriculum enhancement will ensure up-to-date learning. Research opportunities, soft skills, and entrepreneurship training, along with global exposure through international collaborations, will further prepare students for leadership roles. Besides additional tutoring, mentoring, and networking events with industry professionals and alumni will also help students achieve their academic and career goals, making them well-equipped to significantly impact the field of AI in agriculture.

How do you envision the B.Tech AI in Agriculture program making a positive impact on the agricultural industry and society as a whole?

We believe that the program is poised to make a significant impact on both the agricultural industry and society. By equipping students with cutting-edge AI skills tailored to agricultural applications, we can drive efficiency and sustainability in farming practices. Graduates will be able to develop smart technologies that improve crop management, soil health, and water usage, thereby boosting productivity while minimising environmental impact. On a societal level, these innovations can lead to more reliable food supplies, support for small farmers, and overall economic growth in rural areas.

Can you elaborate on the benefits of the dual-campus structure and credit transfer system between SKUAST-Kashmir and IIT Mandi?

The dual-campus structure and credit transfer system between SKUAST-Kashmir and IIT Mandi offer several benefits. Firstly, students get the best of both worlds: the specialised agricultural knowledge from SKUAST-Kashmir and the advanced technological expertise from IIT Mandi. This collaboration enhances the learning experience, providing a more comprehensive education. Additionally, the credit transfer system ensures flexibility, allowing students to take advantage of unique courses and resources at both institutions. This setup not only will broadens their academic horizons but also expose them to diverse research opportunities and professional networks.

What is the program’s capacity, and how many students are in the first academic year?

For this inaugural year, we are admitting a select group of 25 students to the program. This ensures that each student benefits from focused attention and access to abundant resources, cultivating an optimal learning environment. By maintaining a smaller cohort, the program can provide personalised education and support, laying a solid foundation for future growth and success of the program as well as the passing out students.

How does the admission process work?

The admission for the program is purely based on the JEE Mains exam. Prospective students need to have cleared the JEE Mains, which is a national-level entrance exam for engineering programs. Selection will be based on their All India Rank (AIR)/JEE mains Score. The higher the rank, the better the chances of getting admitted into the program. Detailed information about the application process, important dates, and specific cut-offs can be found on the university’s official website.

What advice would you give to students considering the program, and what background should ideal applicants have?

For students considering this program, my advice is to have a genuine passion for both technology and agriculture, as well as a willingness to learn and adapt in a rapidly evolving field. A solid foundation in science, particularly in subjects like mathematics, physics, and biology, is essential. Ideal applicants should also be curious, innovative, and motivated to tackle real-world problems using AI. Practical experience, such as participation in science fairs, coding clubs, or agricultural projects, can also be beneficial. Additionally, being open-minded and eager to learn is crucial, as the fusion of AI and agriculture is a dynamic and constantly changing field with endless possibilities. By combining technical skills with agricultural knowledge, students can develop innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as sustainable food production, climate change, and environmental conservation.

If you’re excited about the potential of AI to transform agriculture and make a positive impact, then this program is an excellent fit for you.

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