Roberson named first Suggs Distinguished Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering

June 7, 2021 | Laura Riddle

Professor and Extension Specialist Gary Roberson has been named the inaugural Charles W. Suggs Distinguished Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. The appointment was established through an endowment from Professor Emeritus Charlie Suggs and his wife, Jane. Their contribution, made in 2018, created the first named professorship in the department’s more than 70-year history.  

Suggs, one of the first students to graduate from Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 1949, would go on to complete his master’s in 1955, and then become the department’s first Ph.D. graduate in 1959. He worked for Dearborn Motors, International Harvester, and the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station before joining BAE, where he taught for 39 years and retired as professor emeritus.

What makes Roberson’s distinction paramount is the instruction he received as a BAE student. 

As an undergraduate researcher, he had the opportunity to work with Suggs in the lab and out in the field. “[Suggs] always wanted to make sure that everybody around him knew what was going on,” Roberson recalls. “He was always interested in people’s success.”

Roberson graduated from Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 1978 and completed his master’s in 1980. Looking for a change, he took a job as a product analysis manager for Long Manufacturing NC until 1983, when he was invited back to teach machinery courses for BAE while working on his Ph.D. 

Expanding Precision Agriculture in North Carolina

“The early phrases that were used to describe precision agriculture,” Roberson simplifies, “were farming by the foot and site specific management.” Precision agriculture uses a combination of information technology and crop management to form calculated decisions that enable farmers to optimize resources and increase crop output. 

Dr. Roberson holds the Aerovironment Quantix inside Suggs Lab.

As a pioneer in precision agriculture, and the only Biological and Agricultural Engineering precision ag faculty member for many years, Roberson has been an integral part of its growth across North Carolina. “Part of my task is to get information into farmers’ hands,” he explains. “How do things work? What technologies can be used to our advantage?” 

Through the distinguished professorship, Roberson aims to establish a base of technology and resources the department can continue building upon. His attention is directed specifically in the areas of application technology and automation equipment as machines replace manual labor and enable farmers to operate around-the-clock. 

Roberson notes major tractor manufacturers are already developing driverless tractors that plant, spray and harvest without an operator even stepping foot in the field, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) autonomously fly over fields assessing crop development over entire seasons.

Aerovironment Quantix images showing mosaic and vegetative index of cotton growth at Cherry Research Station.

Last year, he used the Aerovironment Quantix, one of the department’s UAVs, to monitor cotton production at Cherry Research Station in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Inserting survey points into the ground to create a field boundary, the UAV took pictures of the field using the exact same measurements to develop a series of maps that show which areas of the field were producing the most cotton and those that weren’t. This process, referred to as yield mapping, enables farmers to manage crop inputs and maximize returns.

“The ultimate goal is for us to produce profit maps for the farmer,” Roberson says, “show them where they’re making money and where they’re not.”

North Carolina farmers produce more than 90 different commodities, ranking the state among the nation’s top states for agricultural diversity. “If we can start seeing more and more ways that we can apply precision ag technologies to a wider range of crops, then hopefully we can enhance profitability,” Roberson explains. 

Expanding Biological and Agricultural Engineering

Ron Heiniger, professor and extension specialist with the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, introduced Roberson to precision agriculture in the mid-1990s. From there, Roberson researched and laid the groundwork for the BAE program.

“I’ve been surrounded by some very good colleagues, people that were always willing to assist,” he says. “We’ve got great support from our research stations around the state and that’s been a huge difference.”

Garey Fox, professor and department head, notes that the Suggs Distinguished Professorship will help continue to build the department’s research, teaching, and Extension programming in machine systems and precision agriculture. “Technology integration into agriculture remains one of the future grand challenges in engineering, as we raise the food, fiber and energy needed for a growing population. The Suggs’ Professorship helps establish NC State as one of the leaders in the fields of engineering and engineering technology.”

The Charles W. Suggs Distinguished Professorship recognizes Roberson’s 38-year career with the department and his passion for integrated teaching, Extension, and his research program in precision agriculture. 

“There is no higher honor I could have than to have Charles Sugg’s name in my professional title,” Roberson responds. “I consider this the pinnacle of my career.”