DPI awards R & D grants to four teams led by UIUC faculty

8/31/2020 12:35:49 PM

Michelle Huls Rice

The Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) granted eight awards to launch world-class interdisciplinary centers for significant economic and societal impact. Four of these teams are led by professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering and College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES). Each will receive $125,000, in addition to grant-writing support, access to corporate partners, and DPI’s downtown Chicago office.


The Grainger College of Engineering teams focus on developing new software and hardware to help companies operate machinery remotely; artificial intelligence (AI) in construction and agriculture; and ethical and non-biased AI systems.


Grant recipients from The Grainger College of Engineering and ACES:


1. The Center for Research on Autonomous Farming Technologies (CRAFT). This team will develop and test autonomous robots that will weed and spray corn and soybean crops; work in urban food gardens; and care for berry and nut orchards. 


“We’ve been thinking about this problem for a while now. We’ve questioned how to provide more alternatives to farmers who now have to rely heavily on  chemicals for replacing labor, and we think robotics and AI hold the key,” explained Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor and Donald Biggar Willett Faculty Fellow, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. 


“We’re really excited that DPI has provided resources to help build our Autonomous Farm testbed. Now all our AI work on campus has a place where it can be applied and translated to application.” Chowdhary is also affiliated with the Departments of Aerospace Engineering, Computer Science, and Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as the Coordinated Science Lab.


2. Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Construction. With more than 40 partners lined up from the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, this team will identify key areas for the highest impact of AI in the industry; and bring new AI tools to bring to market.


“Our goal is to develop communities and capacity to found an institute for AI in construction, which will create the foundational ideas, technologies, and technical workforce that allow AI research to support safe, productive, efficient design, construction and maintenance of national buildings and infrastructure systems,” said Mani Golparvar-Fard, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. Through a series of workshops, they plan to identify key areas for the highest impact of AI in design, construction, and operation of the built environment.


3. The Center for Autonomous Construction, Agriculture and Manufacturing at Scale (CEACAMS). The goal of this team is to commercialize new technology that helps companies operate construction and industrial equipment remotely or without human intervention at all.

“The intent was to not only do the basic sciences, but we can also find the application. From the perspective of DPI is that we’re creating an ecosystem where not only do we involve government agencies, but we involve academia, start-ups, and industry,” said William Norris, Clinical Associate Professor, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. 


This will enable the team to create a pipeline that will go through the basic research to product development and out into the marketplace.  The team works with a variety of equipment – drones, off-road vehicles, underwater systems, and semi-trucks. “We cover the gamut of technologies and it allows us to look at a broader range of applications.”


4. Trustworthy and ethical artificial intelligence systems. This team will work to train people on how to build safe and unbiased algorithms. “While there have been tremendous advances in AI and machine-learning in recent years, these mechanisms are still fragile and opaque,” shared team lead Madhusudan Parthasarathy, Professor of Computer Science. Co-principal investigator on the project is Sanmi Koyejo, Assistant Professor, Computer Science.


Incorporating AI into larger systems while guaranteeing broader trust and fairness in decisions is a challenging problem. We look forward to working with DPI’s academic and industry partners in establishing techniques to build AI-enabled trustworthy systems in several areas including healthcare, robotics, autonomous vehicles, manufacturing, and finance,” said Parthasarathy.


Along with co-principal investigators, Koyejo and Bo Li, Assistant Professor, Computer Science, Parthasarathy is also co-lead for Privacy in the Era of Big Data where the goal is to create a platform that will enforce strict privacy policies in sectors such as health care, and develop tools and methods for making the best tradeoffs between privacy and utility.

Full project list from DPI



About DPI

The Discovery Partners Institute empowers people to jumpstart their tech careers or companies in Chicago. Led by the University of Illinois System in partnership with top research universities, it does three things: Train people for high-demand tech jobs; conduct applied R&D; and support Chicago’s tech community. With state investment and a new innovation district in development, DPI has the resources to attract, develop, and leverage the most ambitious people and companies the region has to offer — and keep them here.